Shoah on stage, behind the scenes

The San Francisco Playhouse isn’t advertising its current show as a Holocaust play. And little in the publicity materials for “Ideation” suggests that connection — the work is described as a “psychological suspense thriller, in which a group of corporate consultants work together on a mysterious and ethically ambiguous project.”

It’s only halfway through the play that the “N” word — Nazi — is even mentioned. But it’s always there, just under the surface.

“Ideation,” by Berkeley playwright Aaron Loeb, starts out as a witty office comedy. But the laughter becomes more nervous as the audience realizes, gradually, that the project assigned to this high-powered team is to design a system for doing away with up to a million people and disposing of the bodies.

There’s more than a whiff of the banality of evil in this construct. The group is told the project is theoretical, that the system would only be used if a deadly virus was unleashed and the infected (who would die anyway) needed to be separated out and eliminated. The goal, therefore, is presented as humanitarian — sacrificing a few to save the species.

That’s how fascism operates. It claims to have noble aims.

Loeb, 41, has seen his shows performed around the country, most notably “Abraham Lincoln’s Big, Gay Dance Party,” which premiered at the S.F. Playhouse before its off-Broadway run in 2010.

“Ideation” was inspired, he told me, by his wife’s work with the Center for Justice and Accountability, a San Francisco nonprofit that files civil claims against perpetrators of genocide. As he was working on this play, his wife was working on a case against Mohamed Ali Samantar, the former Somali prime minister accused of helping to plan the extermination of the Isaaq clan in Somaliland in 1988-89.

Indeed, when the characters in the play begin breaking down their project into its component parts — collection of the target population, followed by liquidation and disposal of the bodies — Sandeep, the engineer and Delhi native tasked with designing a “liquidation chamber,” worries the plan could conceivably be used “against people who look like me.” Or maybe, he suggests, it’s for the benefit of oil companies in Nigeria — where, Loeb points out, actual genocide is going on at this moment.

But the Holocaust was never far from his thoughts, Loeb told me.

“Being descended from Jews, I grew up with constant talk of the Holocaust,” he said. “My grandmother escaped Austria in the 1930s, but most of her family did not. The Holocaust is in the background of everything” in the play, he said.

As I watched “Ideation” on opening night last week, I kept thinking of other films and plays that tackle this excruciating theme. Most, understandably, are dramas. They are somber, even relentless, in their journey toward the inevitable horrors ahead.

There are also comedies. Some made fun of Hitler before the full scope of the Holocaust was revealed — notably, Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 political satire “To Be or Not to Be.” But after the war, it was a generation before Mel Brooks wrote “The Producers,” with its madcap play-within-a-play, “Springtime for Hitler,” which lampooned the Nazi leader to sidesplitting effect. Responding to critics appalled at the notion of laughing at Nazism, Brooks opined that making fun is a powerful weapon.

Loeb is aware of the delicate balance a writer must strike when treating the Holocaust — or any genocide. But this play is different from other Holocaust comedies I’ve seen, in that Loeb isn’t asking the audience to laugh at the perpetrators, or at genocide itself.

Loeb has done something more subtle. He sets up what we think is an office romp — albeit a very dark one — and directs the laughter at the high jinks one would expect: the adulterous couple, the overeager assistant. Then we find ourselves chuckling at the absurdity of using a whiteboard to plan a genocide.

And then we’re not laughing at all.

Referring to the famously shocking scene in the Hitchcock masterpiece “Psycho,” Loeb said, “The effect I wanted the play to have is, when the audience realizes what these people might be working on, it’s like when Janet Leigh is stabbed in the shower.”


Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at