If, like some people I know, you miss the caustic humor and moral horror of the cult classic Better Off Ted, go and see Ideation at Gremlin Theatre immediately. Funny and sharp, if you are a lover of the macabre, this is not to be missed. Veridian dynamics: We’re sorry. You’re welcome
ISLAND OF DOUBT
In his classic example, Rene Descartes put himself on a philosophical “island of doubt.” Imagine, he entreats the reader, that there is an evil genius who, out of malevolence and cruelty, has polluted all of our senses. All of the ways we try to access and understand the world must be mistrusted – what can we know while sitting on this island of doubt? Descartes famously concludes “I think, therefore I am” as his first building block of knowledge in this situation. It is easy to disregard philosophers like Descartes, and the philosophical legacy he both comes from and later enhances, but the beauty of Ideation (book by Aaron Loeb) is that it takes the reliance on thought to an extreme. Hypermasculinity, corporate profit maximizing, atomistic egos competing in a no-holds barred fashion, even our focus on self-help – all of these can be understood as modern extensions of a rationalist philosophy that prioritizes thinking over feeling, and leads, perhaps, to productivity for productivity’s sake, and telling instead of listening. While overly didactic in some places, Ideation’s satire is savage, funny, and supposed to make you more than a little queasy in places.
The set-up is simple enough. We spend the full play in a typical conference room, amid a five-person gaggle of corporate consultants. A single, solitary conference room table (our island of doubt for the play), a whiteboard, a chincy console table, and an “exocitc” vase—you have probably encountered all of these mundane items numerous times before. The walls are a bluish white, a pretence at personality and comfort the room itself cannot exude.
What starts as a common business practice -- ground rules, generating ideas, writing on the whiteboard, -- quickly grows sinister. The painfully culpable Hannah (Katherine Kupiecki), the badboy Brock (Peter Christian Hansen), the by-the-book Ted (Brian P. Joyce), the hopeful Sandeep (Nikhil Pandey), and spoilt intern Scooter (Ben Shaw), all must deal, in one way or another, with the moral dilemma facing their group; they must decide if they want to solve the horrific problem presented to them. The group and its individual members are marooned on Descartes’ island of doubt, and they must try to cope with the fact that they may not be able to trust the intentions of their prompt, or their bosses, or the country, or even each other. In order to cope with how little information they actually have, each member attempts to employ different rational, decision making schema in more and more wild ways.
WHITEBOARDS AND DECISIONS
This was my inner-geek’s favorite part of the play. I enjoyed watching them attempt to draw out their dilemma in different pro/con lists, charts of outcomes, and tiers of knowledge -- all looked like methods that could come out of a symbolic logic or corporate groupthink class. The whiteboard is almost a character in and of itself. All point to the fariscal nature of trying to come up with too much certainty without any observations and in the absence of facts (the opposite of this hyper rationalism is empiricism, after all). With each failed attempt to understand what they should do, the characters becomes increasing paranoid about each other and their company; most start to crack under the moral uncertainty about and ultimate culpability to how the solution they envision will be used. I don’t want to spoil the reveal, but let’s just say that liquidation and disposal are absolutely as ominous as they sound.
Hansen and Shaw do a great job with their bro-y caricatures, each cutting a fine figure in a fitted shirt and tie. Hansen in particular plays into the stereotype of the hypermasculine, win-at-all-cost corporate lackey. His movements are self-assured and cocky, full of a self-possession that slowly breaks down into mania as the play wears on. Joyce remains my favorite performance of the night. His character has fewer qualms about the group’s assignment, and Joyce makes Ted grandfatherly and practical, a deliciously jarring combination. Kupiecki’s character is written in an uneven way, making her performance more difficult to understand. She does do a great job of switching between two extremes--controlling her room of lackeys and then being completely subservient to her boss when he teleconferences in. Pandey, as one of the only characters with any moral fiber, gives Sandeep the right amount of confidence and trepediation, making his defection from the group make sense. The tepid chemistry between Kupiecki and Pandey’s characters undermines the plot somewhat, but in all the actors do a great job making this script comprehensible, disturbing, and laugh-out-loud funny in the right measure.
If you want to know what has them so worried and spinning their wheels, or if you too want to enjoy 90 minutes stranded on an island, I highly recommend Ideation at Gremlin Theatre, which runs until July 29th.