‘Groupthink,’ consultants are on trial in ‘Ideation’

From the left: Lewis D. Wheeler, Matt Ketai, Ed Hoopman, Christine Hamel, and Jake Murphy in “Ideation.” Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

WATERTOWN – Outside consultants often visited the newspaper where I worked for many years. The first thing they usually said was “everything you’re doing is wrong.”

My colleagues and I took to calling them “insultants” and dreaded both their visits and their advice.

But consultants are very important in today’s world, often assigned hugely important tasks such as … saving the world?

Playwright Aaron Loeb imagined such a possibility when he wrote “Ideation,” now being presented by the New Repertory Theatre and the Boston Center for American Performance at the Mainstage Theater at the Mosesian Center for the Arts.

The title refers to the art of “groupthink” or brainstorming, working together as a group to form ideas or concepts, and that is just what this group of consultants are beginning to do as the play opens.

Christine Hamel is Hannah, who’s confident, experienced and in charge, but wary of the office politics involved, especially when an intern named Scooter ( Jake Murphy), whose father is on the board of directors, is assigned the task of taking notes about the meeting.

Lewis D. Wheeler is Brock, an intense, brash, arrogant but talented type, who wasn’t too concerned about the ethics of the job he just completed in Crete, where he passed along the responsibilities for certain “liabilities” from his client to a struggling government, and is proud he did.

Ed Hoopman is a more laid-back, easy-going Southerner named Ted who was also involved in the project in Crete and is anxious to get the job done so he can see his daughter’s soccer game.

An Indian engineer named Sandeep (Matt Ketai) with a doctorate is the logistics man on the job, and we’re made aware early on he is living in the U.S. mostly through the good graces and whims of his employer.

The group is working for an unnamed client on something called Project Senna. As the project comes to light, it becomes apparent the group is being asked how to efficiently and under the cover of darkness “liquefy”’ and dispose of the remains of a million people – or is it two million people? – in the event of a catastrophic event such a virus that threatened to exterminate the human race.

But what if – and eventually the group ponders the possibility – they are working to further the aims of a rogue government or a group that has as its aim the extermination of a whole race or class of people, something Sandeep finds particularly plausible.

“Ideation” also works as commentary not only on consultants and how they think and work, but also on groupthink,and how the dynamics and power structure of a group can be easily upset by a hidden relationship, an offhand remark, someone wearing gloves, or the sudden, dramatic disappearance of a member of the group.

It’s an idea explored in such disparate works as the novel “Lord of the Flies” or Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” episode “The Monsters are due on Maple Street,” where the social structure of a neighborhood dissolves and friends and neighbors turn on each other when car horns go off or lights start to flicker.

Loeb also asks the question: When push comes to shove,where does the employee’s loyalty lie: With his employer or his fellow man?

Spoiler alert: There is a “tell” early on in the production you might want to keep an eye out for that may or may not be the key to unlocking the mystery, and there are along the way other assorted shortcuts, backdoors, and red herrings – blind alleys that lead nowhere.

Jim Petosa’s taut direction and his sterling cast keep upping the ante as events unfold in real time and the group faces a deadline from an unseen boss who is expecting real results when he checks back in.

The production values are solid from the futuristic scenic design – it somewhat resembles a geodesic dome — by Ryan Bates that emphasizes the contemporary nature of what we’re seeing;, smart, sharp costumes by Penny Pinette that show we’re dealing with an upscale group here; evocative lighting by Bridget K. Doyle; and sound design and music by Dewey Dellay that help set the atmosphere Loeb is seeking.

“Ideation” is exciting, original, smart, funny, well-acted and directed and it will make you think, wonder and ponder long after the performance ends about how we as a people make vital decisions that will affect all of us.

The New Repertory Theatre and Boston Center for American Performance production of “Ideation.” Written by Aaron Loeb. Directed by Jim Petosa. At the Mainstage Theater at the Mosesian Center for the Arts through Sept. 24. newrep.org.

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