With scenes that recall hair-raising episodes from both “Homeland” and “Breaking Bad,” Ayad Akhtar’s latest play, which continues the winning streak begun with his Pulitzer-winning Disgraced, tells the story of Nick Bright (Justin Kirk), an American banker who is kidnapped in Pakistan. When Nick learns that his employer, Citibank, is no longer negotiating for his release, and his captors say they are considering handing him over to the group that beheaded journalist Daniel Pearl, Nick makes a deal with them: He will raise the ransom money himself, by working the financial markets on their behalf.
With this surreal but straightforward premise, Ayad Akhtar achieves in “The Invisible Hand” (only his third play) what I would have thought nearly impossible – a suspenseful, engaging, thoughtful and provocative lesson in economics.
By the end of the play, Nick has introduced his kidnappers (and the audience at New York Theatre Workshop) to a range of economic theory and trading practices, from short selling to currency exchange to the basics of world-wide monetary policy after World War II. The theater is providing an online guide to what is covered, but part of the glory of the play is that such supplementary instruction is not necessary. This is for two reasons. First, the playwright is a master of clarity, far better than any economics professor I ever had. More importantly, one need not grasp the specifics at all to be engaged in the basic and intriguing philosophical and political questions that they help illustrate, such as: Is money the root of all evil? The title of the play is a term coined by Adam Smith, the 18th century philosopher and economist, to describe the self-regulating behavior of the marketplace. But the playwright seems to be asking: Is Smith’s concept possible in a world so overrun by personal and societal corruption?
However stimulating the themes, “The Invisible Hand” also works purely as both drama and theater, aided by Ken Rus Schmoll’s pulsating direction, a design team that brings us into a claustrophobic room with the disturbing hum of American drones outside, and a terrific four-member cast.
Justin Kirk, best known for Showtime’s “Weeds” and HBO’s “Angels in America” and most familiar to theater audiences for “Other Desert Cities” and “Love! Valour! Compassion!,” does not disappoint as the put-upon but pragmatic Nick.
Part of the strength of the play is how distinct and full-dimensional the three kidnappers. They do not see themselves as terrorists. “The Taliban?” one says, “They don’t like us anymore than they like you.”
Jameal Ali plays Dar, who when the play starts, is shown almost lovingly clipping the nails of his handcuffed captive. He is the least sophisticated of the kidnappers, the man lowest down in the hierarchy, and his relaxed relationship with Nick when they are alone is a sly way of showing that some considerable time has passed since Nick was kidnapped. As a foreshadowing of events to come, Dar is grateful for simple financial advice that Nick gave him privately that netted the man $75, an impressive sum for the poverty-stricken rural man.
Usman Ally portrays the volatile London-born Bashir, who left his native Britain in disgust and sees himself as part of a generation “giving up soft lives in the West to fight for something meaningful.” It was Bashir who kidnapped Nick, which was a mistake – they thought he was his boss. In what would be nearly a satire if the director had played it that way, Bashir becomes Nick’s enthusiastic student.
Dariush Kashani is Imam Saleen, the usually calm, sleek, white-robed head of the unnamed organization, who sees himself as a man trying to help his people. He was a journalist whose father was killed in retaliation for his efforts to expose local corruption. The Imam is given the most articulate reasons for his anti-Americanism. “One thing that has always made me angry about Americans is the way they confuse money with righteousness. Being rich does not give you moral superiority.”
It is perhaps too schematic, but nevertheless riveting, that Akhtar presents all three of these kidnappers sympathetically but also reveals each one in his own way to be vicious and corrupt, capable of betrayal and shocking cruelty.
If “The Invisible Hand” is more in-your-face and more foreign than “Disgraced,” it too offers a wily, nearly mathematical structure that lures us in, bops us with surprises, and makes us think.
The Invisible Hand
By Ayad Akhtar
Directed by Ken Rus Schmoll
Production Stage Manager
Megan Schwarz Dickert
Running time: 2 hours including one intermission
The Invisible Hand is scheduled to run through January 4, 2015