Aaron Loeb world premier at SF Playhouse

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Ebola.  It’s pretty scary, but it’s an ocean away.  Besides, the powers that be will contain it, won’t they?  It’ll never spread to Piedmont.

Still, shouldn’t we plan for the worst?  What if an unruly gang of of infected souls tried to breach our borders?  Those expensive new surveillance cameras wouldn’t keep them out.  What if it got as bad as that 1978 George Romero zombie movie, Dawn of the Dead?  What if we got overrun?

Let’s plan ahead!  Let’s herd all those dangerous sickos into big cargo containers.  Let’s truck them to the Bay,  Let’s load them onto ships.  We could give orders to dump them far out at sea.  Maybe some of their occupants would still be alive, but they’re doomed to death anyway, aren’t they?  Isn’t it better to save ourselves?

Just a creepy, paranoid scenario?  Maybe not.  In the 1950s, when the nuclear arms race heated up, “thinking the unthinkable” gained currency, too.  Schoolkids practiced duck-and-cover under their desks, while the military practiced what to do if our early-warning system detected Soviet missiles heading our way.  A few years after that a movie explored the lunacy: Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.

Now in 2014 a satirical drama explores the lunacy that something like Ebola might engender, though is “the unthinkable” in this case lunacy, or is it prudence?  The play is  Aaron Loeb’s Ideation, now in a world premiere at San Francisco Playhouse.

Though the planet is a mess (think global warming, the Middle East, political paralysis, etc.), Loeb’s drama takes place in one of the least messy settings imaginable: a sleek corporate meeting-room complete with a whiteboard on which a group of full-of-themselves idea-men and one woman, who chairs the meeting, spell out a Holocaust-like solution to modern plague, involving huge hidden murder-rooms and methods of secretly disposing of the bodies.

 They’ve been set the task by a mysterious figure known only as J.D. (like Godot he never shows up, though we hear his angry voice a couple of times on speaker phone).  You might expect from this description that Ideation would be centered on the appalling horrors of what this smug gang of well-dressed thugs comes up with, but that turns out not to be Loeb’s main target.  His target is paranoia, corporate paranoia in particular–fear of failing to please the boss, fear of losing your job.  Radical solutions to rampant modern plague is his springboard, but the increasingly wild antics onstage–the suspicions, the dread, the attacks, both verbal and physical–are about the lunacy that ignorance and unfounded suspicion unleash.  And about the inhumanity that selfish corporate behavior can engender.

In Ideation the characters who are supposed to be part of a solution, however repellant that solution is, turn out to be a big problem, too.

Loeb is a smart writer, and you can’t accuse him of losing sight of his goal.  Boy, is he focused!  And, boy, is SF Playhouse focused, too.  Its production, tightly directed by Josh Costello, goes for the jugular, and you’re never in doubt where the laughs, and the shocked gasps, are supposed to occur.  The lean-and-mean production is enhanced by Bill English’s streamlined set, and by costumes by Abra Berman, lighting by Mark Hueske and sound by Zaque Eyn; and the expert cast meets every mark: Carrie Paff (Hannah), Mark Anderson Phillips (Brock) Michael Ray Wisely (Ted), Jason Kapoor (Sandeep), and Ben Euphrat (Scooter).

So…a smart play expertly staged.  Why didn’t I like it more?  The opening night audience laughed and cheered while I felt at times as if I was in the grip of a well-oiled machine.  The characters aren’t people, they’re cogs in a schema–we never really care about them–and, while I give the actors high marks for efficiency, I wished they’d let up now and then, especially the usually very good actor, Mark Anderson Phillips, who gives us overdone sneers and hysteria–acting as telegraphy.

Ideation has its moments, and Loeb is getting at something in it, something important, but it would be more effective if it were played more subtly.  Farce doesn’t have to stick its finger in your eye.

Ideation plays on Sutter Street until November 8th, followed by the Neil Simon/Burt Bacharach/Hal David musical, Promises, Promises, based on the hit movie The Apartment.  For tickets/information call 415-677-9596 or visit