Wednesday, March 16, 2016

IDEATION by Aaron Loeb: A Philosophical Feast

L-R: Mark Anderson Phillips and Carrie Paff in IDEATION.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
When Brock (Mark Anderson Phillips), Ted (Michael Ray Wisely), and Sandeep (Jason Kapoor), three business consultants, returned from their latest assignment in Greece, they were in for a big surprise: their boss, Hannah (Carrie Paff), was there to inform them that their new assignment was to devise a program whereby millions of people could be efficiently and secretly liquidated and their remains disposed of, with the public to be none the wiser.

Just imagine, if you will, that some evil entity – think ISIS or Al Qaeda or North Korea or Iran – came into possession of a chemical weapon with no known antidote, a substance so toxic that it would spread virally throughout the world, infecting millions.  Imagine, further, that all those infected would die within months and that, worse yet, anyone coming into contact with such an infected individual would himself have a 50% chance of infection and imminent death.  Under such circumstances, mightn’t the US Government (or some other government in the civilized world) attempt to devise a plan whereby all those who had been infected could be put to death (as humanely as possible, of course), while keeping the entire project secret from the public?  And if our Government (or some such other entity) might do that in the event of such a worldwide human catastrophe, might it not seek to take preventive action and develop such a workable plan even in anticipation of the mere possibility that some rogue nation might someday threaten the world in that fashion?

That is the dark premise at the heart of Ideation, the remarkably original new play by Aaron Loeb, currently premiering at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan.  The US Government (or some other unknown client) has retained a prestigious business consulting firm to devise just such a plan.  And now it’s all up to Brock, Ted, Sandeep,  and Hannah to pull it off.

You got a problem with any of that?

After all, shouldn’t humanity’s survival trump concern for any specific human subset - particularly one that is already diseased and on the verge of death anyway?

Or should it?  And even if it should, how could anyone, even a “civilized” nation (such as the US?) with untold resources, possibly accomplish such a goal?

The play’s action all takes place in the consulting firm’s conference room, where Hannah and the three man team are pressing to achieve their goal under a severe time constraint, and with Scooter (Ben Euphrat), a young intern much too big for his britches, underfoot and doing more harm than good.

The truly extraordinary thing about this play is the way in which it manages to explore a whole host of serious philosophical and psychological problems, while never failing to fulfill its primary function which is, of course, to entertain.  The moral dilemma at the play’s core, with which utilitarian philosophers have grappled unsuccessfully since Bentham and Mill, is really the classic “trolley” problem writ large.  Nor is it just that ethical conundrum that vitalizes this production: we are confronted, too, by epistemological issues and the problem of “other minds”: what do we really know and how do we know that we know it?  Or, in this context, How do the team members really know that the threat they have been asked to deal with is only hypothetical and hasn’t already occurred?  How do they know who their real client is and what his true motivations may be?  Indeed, how can they even know what each other know or believe?

And if they could find answers to such abstract questions, then what?  How are they to develop a meaningful course of action when there is no hard data to begin with?  Descartes couldn’t get very far beyond “Cogito ergo sum” and the ontological argument for the existence of God, while linguistically clever, really doesn’t get one very far in proving the existence of a Deity.  And today’s business consultants and quantitative analysts, with all their whiteboards and decision trees and algorithms, often accomplish little more than did Descartes or St. Anselm.

Finally, Ideation raises important questions regarding human psychology.  How willing are perfectly normal individuals to follow orders or go along with the crowd for the sake of community, conformity, or self-interest - even when to do so may cause pain (or death) to others?  When does discomfort and uncertainty lead to paranoia?  Indeed, Ideation may well be interpreted not only as Loeb’s tongue-in-cheek attack on the failures and pretensions of today’s business consultants and their cousins in academia but on the self-satisfied smugness of all of the rest of us as well.