Monday, October 6, 2014

Bidness As Usual

Adam Smith (the 18th century Scottish philosopher and author of 1776's An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations) is famous for coining the term "the invisible hand of the market." While free market enthusiasts often espouse lofty ideals, it's no secret that their wealth is often due to a perverse combination of inheritance, greed, and chicanery. As far as they're concerned, the ends always justify the means.

The lust for profits derived from speculation can be seen in such popular movies as 1987's Wall Street and 1991's Other People's Money. Whether one looks at contemporary dramas like 2009's ENRON (by Lucy Prebble) and 2010's Hermes (by Bennett Fisher) or dramas that probe the questionable morality of war profiteering such as 1905's Major Barbara (by George Bernard Shaw) and 1947's All My Sons (by Arthur Miller), one thing becomes clear. In the business world "carpe diem" goes hand-in-hand with "We don't need no stinkin' ethics."

Satirical takes on the business world, like 1961's Pulitzer Prize-winning musical comedy, How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, make it all seem like fun and games. But to playwrights like David Mamet (American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, Speed-The-Plow, Wag the Dog) and Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman) the business world is filled with unscrupulous scumbags and pathetic losers. In 1960, Lionel Bart's musical adaptation of Oliver Twist included the following song in which Fagin teaches his boys how to earn a living.

Two new plays focusing on business issues recently received their world premieres from Bay area theatre companies.
  • Each was written by a playwright whose work has been nurtured by the local theatre community. 
  • Each dealt with thorny business issues.
  • Each was set at an extreme end of the socioeconomic ladder.
  • Each proved, without any doubt, that whether on a macro or micro level, the business world generates more than enough conflict to inspire dramatists.
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Video game designer Aaron Loeb has spent several years as one of the resident playwrights in the Playground program. Two of his previous full-length works (First Person Shooter and Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party) received their world premieres from the San Francisco Playhouse. Following a workshop production in the San Francisco Playhouse's Sandbox series, Loeb's Ideation received its formal world premiere production from  the company in a crackling, tense staging by Josh Costelllo.

Mark AndersonPhillips, Jason Kapoor, and Michael Ray Wisely are
three hot-shot consultants in Ideation (Photo by: Lauren English)

Ideation begins as a trio of hot shot strategic consultants return from a trip to Greece to deal with a challenging, top-secret project. During their meetings in a sleek conference room (beautifully designed by Bill English) nothing can be recorded or videotaped. No notes can be taken down on paper. The only tool for record keeping are the shiny whiteboards which can easily (and quickly) be erased.

Bill English's stylish unit set for Ideation

Unfortunately, there's a personnel problem. As Hannah (Carrie Paff) explains, she's been stuck with an apparently useless intern named Scooter (Ben Euphrat) who seems to think that he's above such menial tasks as getting coffee for the consultants and persists in addressing Hannah as "Dude."

Scooter much prefers to sit in on top-level discussions as if he were a partner in the firm. The underlying problem is that he has been forced on Hannah by one of his relatives (who sits on the company's board of directors). Before the meeting can start, Hannah needs her lead man, Brock (Mark Anderson Phillips) to put Scooter in his place.

Hannah (Carrie Paff) tries to deal with an obnoxious
intern (Ben Euphrat) in Ideation  (Photo by: Lauren English) 

With his ego running amok, Brock goes too far, firing Scooter for being an obnoxious, insubordinate young prick. That leaves Brock, Ted (Michael Ray Wisely), and Sandeep (Jason Kapoor) to start attacking the logistics of their task. Defining the parameters of their mission (and trying to imagine what is or is not feasible), they must tiptoe their way around nasty terms like genocide, mass graves, and extermination camps.

In essence, the challenge they're facing is how to dispose of millions of dead bodies that might result from a pandemic or biological warfare. Needless to say, with the Ebola crisis making headlines, Ideation takes on a new sense of urgency for its audience.

Slowly but surely, doubts about the true nature of the project start to seep into the conference room. Some of these are colored by the fact that, although happily married, Hannah has been carrying on an affair with Sandeep. Sandeep's sudden disappearance while on an errand (and his subsequent inability to answer any calls to his smartphone) quickly spike the level of paranoia within the conference room.

Mark Anderson Phillips and Michael Ray Wisely become
increasingly paranoid in Ideation (Photo by: Lauren English) 

As a playwright, Loeb is deft at ratcheting up the tension and hysteria with regard to personal relationships, the questionable goals of the project, and a growing sense of doom. The role of Brock seems tailor-made for Mark Anderson Phillips (whose aggressive behavior and body language become increasingly agitated over the course of the play's 90 minutes).

Phillips gets strong support from Carrie Paff as "she whose presence must be tolerated" and Michael Jay Wisely as the more level-headed consultant on the team. Jason Kapoor and Ben Euphrat shine in smaller roles. After experiencing Ideation, it seems like a perfect play to be produced in tandem with Fisher's Hermes. Performances of Loeb's play continue at the San Francisco Playhouse through November 8 (click here to order tickets).

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For the antithesis of Bill English's sleek, upscale set for Ideation, one need only look a block away to the dumpy, claustrophobic environment created by Nina Ball for the world premiere of Ransom, Texas (a new drama by William Bivins being staged by Jon Tracy for the Virago Theatre Company). A two-character play about a father-son pair of losers, Ransom, Texas is filled with the kind of dysfunctional behavior that no amount of hard liquor can cure. Bivins is quick to explain the autobiographical tie-in to his play:
"I grew up on a pecan farm in New Mexico. When a cousin died in the 1990s, I had to sort of drop everything and run the farm. I had a bit of a power struggle with my uncle. The situation of the play is roughly like the one I was experiencing. This was the first play I ever wrote. It’s gone through many drafts and permutations since then. After I wrote it, I did a number of rewrites and then the draft sat on the shelf for a number of years.

Economics figures in a lot of my plays; it’s something I’m really fascinated by. Because I like plays where the stakes are bigger than just the characters onstage, I wanted it to be this mini-kingdom where, if things go south, many people would be affected. I wanted to make it a situation where what’s at stake is not just these two people (or even just this company), but this town and all the workers that work in the company -- and then going out from that to what’s happening globally, including outsourcing and how that’s affecting the American workforce."
Dixon Phillips and Damien Seperi in Ransom, Texas

The key figures in Ransom, Texas are:
  • Vern (Dixon Phillips), an ornery bastard with a drinking problem, a possible heart condition, and severe daddy issues. A benevolent despot who uses years of macho bluster as a way to hide his insecurities, Vern is the kind of spiteful sadist who will sign the contract his son has worked so hard on to sell the business and then, as soon as his son turns his back, push the signed document through a paper shredder, claiming that he only signs documents in blue ink and his son had handed him a pen with black ink. Vern makes no bones about the fact that he enjoys fucking with his son's mind and fucking his son's wife. Despite his hatred for his own father, Vern seems well on his way to becoming a carbon copy of his old man.
  • Bruce (Damien Seperi), is Vern's frustrated son who is desperately trying to bring some reality into their failing family business. Together with a college friend, he has devised a scheme which would allow their small factory to outsource the manufacturing of its drill bits to China so that he could then concentrate on sales and marketing. In addition to coping with his father's constant attempts to sabotage the deal, Bruce must also struggle with the news that Vern might not be his biological father.
Vern and Bruce spend the entire time struggling to see who can become king of the mountain through a series of backstabbing lies, humiliating mind games, physical confrontations, and bitter displays of father-son hatred. Boiled down to its essence, their relationship translates to "Can't live with him, can't live without him." As Bivins explains:
"These are guys who, because of their really twisted relationship, can’t be consistently direct with each other. There’s love there, but there is also the opposite. They’re locked in an eternal conflict with each other and the situation is so volatile that they can’t talk directly with each other. There’s a lot of subterfuge and a lot of manipulation. Bruce (who is trying to take over his father’s company) can’t just do it in a straightforward way; he does it on the sly. Because of the nature of their relationship, it becomes betrayal upon betrayal upon betrayal. If there were just a direct request from one of them, it would be shut down, possibly violently."
Dixon Phillips and Damien Seperi in Ransom, Texas

If Ransom, Texas offers a stronger showcaase for Dixon Phillips than Damien Seperi, it's because Vern is obviously the more complex and emotionally damaged man. Performances continue through October 18 at the Tides Theatre (click here to order tickets).

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