'The Invisible Hand': Theater Review

The Invisible Hand Production Still - H 2014
Joan Marcus

The Invisible Hand Production Still - H 2014

A crackling thriller in which the U.S. dollar becomes the unholy common God

Justin Kirk plays an American banker held for ransom by Pakistani militants in this bold new work from Pulitzer-winning 'Disgraced' playwright Ayad Akhtar

It takes artistry to make an audience care about the vulnerability of an American investment banker these days. But it's not just the horrific reality of current events that humanizes the central figure in The Invisible Hand, in which one such finance wizard is taken hostage by Islamic militants and cornered into sharing his morally questionable skills of the trade. Ayad Akhtar makes no easy judgments in his politically pointed new play, a taut drama peppered throughout with corrosive humor about ideological differences — and more significantly, overlaps.

The playwright's 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner, Disgraced, probed complex questions of faith and identity, and more recently, The Who and the What tracked thorny disagreements over gender, politics and Islam within an educated Muslim-American family. This new work (which evolved out of an earlier one-act play) further cements Akhtar's reputation as an uncommonly astute observer of interfaith conflicts, tribalism and clashing cultural perspectives in the 21st century.

Disgraced was a knockout in its 2012 New York debut in an intimate space, where the ripple-effect argument that begins during a disintegrating dinner party packed a bracing, inescapable immediacy. But in its current Broadway transfer, upsizing to a larger theater and key cast changes cost the play some spark.

The Invisible Hand is a pithy but thematically rich drama of a similar scale and intensity, and this New York Theatre Workshop staging feels like its ideal incarnation. Director Ken Ross Schmoll and an excellent four-person cast make us uncomfortable but willing captives in a concrete-walled bunker, designed with stark realism by Riccardo Hernandez and doused in unforgiving light by Tyler MicoleauLeah Gelpe's sharp sound design, its silences broken by the distant hum of U.S. drones and explosions, completes the atmospheric picture.

Read more 'Disgraced': Theater Review

When the play begins, Nick Bright (Justin Kirk) has been mistakenly abducted by a small band of rebels in Pakistan aiming for his more powerful boss, the local head of Citibank operations. His captors, in ascending order of importance, are Dar (Jameal Ali), who has made a few rupees on potato-crop trading thanks to Nick's advice and is viciously punished for getting too cozy with the prisoner; Bashir (Usman Ally), a radical West Londoner who has rejected the second-class citizenship accepted by his marginalized immigrant parents; and Imam Saleem (Dariush Kashani), an erudite journalist-turned-holy man, who calls the shots, at least at first.

Cool-headed Nick tries reasoning that neither his employer nor the U.S. government will negotiate with terrorists, urging them to take the $3 million he can raise rather than their unrealistic demand of $10 million. But the price is non-negotiable, so Nick convinces them to let him use his knowledge of the global investment market to earn the ransom, extracting a promise of his release upon full payment. But as the Imam later concedes, "The Pakistanis are not good partners…. They cannot be trusted."

All four actors navigate scintillating hairpin turns as we see different sides of their characters. Dar is a meek underling capable of brutality on command. Imam Saleem is a soft-spoken, scholarly type, saddened by the endemic corruption of his country, and yet when challenged, he spews his rage like the fieriest of fundamentalists. Bashir at first comes off as just an unpredictable hothead, but there's forward-thinking lucidity to his revolutionary zeal.

Watch more Josh Radnor, Gretchen Mol on 'Disgraced'

Nick also is not the standard-issue wannabe Gordon Gekko that a less subtle playwright might have dumped in this fix. He's an intelligent operator, confident but not too cocky, and sufficiently prudent never to get his hands dirty, whether it's a crafty trading move or an attempted executive coup at the bank. His idea of faith up to now has been that currency is king, and he's evidently been disinclined to contemplate the morality of gaming the stock market despite the awareness that it can cripple fragile economies and cause governments to topple.

While there are certainly realizations that hit Nick like cold water in the face during his confinement, Akhtar is not concerned with anything as banal as the shaming of a financial culture that's pretty much beyond shame. Or even simply with exposing the degree to which Islamic militants are willing to adopt the tenets of capitalism and greed that they so despise. Though the play achieves both those things with considerable bite.

What's more distinctive is the way The Invisible Hand deftly balances the edge-of-the-seat suspense of its prisoner-under-threat situation with a provocative examination of the psychological affinities between the two sides. Politics, economics, religion and human loyalties all come under scrutiny as negotiable systems of belief.

Read more Inside Broadway’s 'Disgraced'

In light of recent events, the casual references to hostage beheadings are chilling, even as Nick's jailers make a point of distancing themselves from the hardline tactics of the Lashkar militants. The threat of violence here is very real. And the drama sustains its simmering menace even while flirting with the territory of a very dark, high-stakes bromance as Nick becomes a mentor to his tech-savvy protege Bashir, who has no problem taking advantage of political instability in Pakistan to achieve his goals. But that suggestion of an unlikely friendship is merely a sly ploy by Akhtar to throw us off guard en route to an ending that's deadly serious and designed to send the audience home thinking.

The playwright slips in a crash course in futures and basket trading, with a sidebar on the history of America as both economic conqueror and corrupter. That the finance-speak is not only digestible but also gripping is a testament to the writing, direction and performances. Kirk and Ally, in particular, do a mesmerizing dance in contrasting styles — watchful, cunning and increasingly desperate on Nick's side, jumpy and dangerous in unexpected ways on Bashir's. It's riveting stuff.

Cast: Justin Kirk, Usman Ally, Dariush Kashani, Jameal Ali

Director: Ken Rus Schmoll

Playwright: Ayad Akhtar

Set designer: Riccardo Hernandez

Costume designer: ESosa

Lighting designer: Tyler Micoleau

Sound designer: Leah Gelpe

Dialect coach: Stephen Gabis

Presented by New York Theatre Workshop, by special arrangement with Dasha Theatricals