By Elizabeth Ahlfors
While Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Disgraced, currently runs on Broadway, Akhtar’s off-Broadway suspenseful thriller, The Invisible Hand, appears blocks downtown at New York Theatre Workshop, and is perhaps even more timely. Still dealing with the cultural clash between American and Muslin societies, Akhtar draws in a third element, the bottom line – money.
While The Invisible Hand starts with the threat of an imminent beheading, it potently shifts to the power and drama of international finance. Taking place today in a secreted bunker somewhere in Pakistan, a successful young banker, Nick Bright (Justin Kirk) is being held for a $10 million dollar ransom after he was kidnapped, mistaken for his boss.
Through fast-thinking, Bright uses his know-how of the intricate convolutions of world finance to avoid a beheading and hopefully gain his release. He tells his captors, the dark irascible Bashir (Usman Ally) and dignified Iman Saleem (Dariush Kashani) that he is more valuable to them alive. He has about $3 million in a personal account in the Cayman Islands and can raise more, sharing with them the intricacies of futures, options and the workings of the Central Bank. Having Googled Bright’s Princeton thesis, Bashir is convinced by the American’s expertise. Bright directs Bashir on the sole computer, where and when to buy and sell, emphasizing timing is everything. “Bulls make money. Bears make money. Pigs get slaughtered… Greed is what loses you money.”
Ashkar has written a taut, riveting plot with spurts of humor and moments of humanity. Paraphrasing Adam Smith, the invisible hand moving the free market is economical self-interest, a point of balance understood by each character as well as director Ken Rus Schmoll. Schmoll keeps the excellent cast on a realistic edge, sharpened with theatrical blasts, shouts and accusations, and the relentless buzz of drones.
Kirk’s (TV’s Weeds) portrayal of Nick Bright is complex, focused and conniving with terror and despair. Usman Ally, with a low-market British accent, brings out Bashir’s idealistism and shrewd mind, proving how quickly he learns. His battles with Dariush Kashani’s more restrained Iman are a subtle but constant shifting of power and status. Coming from different sides, captors Ally and Kashani prove they are just as intrigued with amassing money as the money-hungry Americans. Bright is always wary of where he should place his allegiance, a situation highlighted in a hair-raising face-to-face about the opiate of the masses being religion or money. Playing the third captor is Jameal Ali as Dar, winning as a young sympathetic go-for who learns that money makes the world go round on all levels as he tries to modestly raise his livestyle through Bright’s financial lessons,.
The cold gray of Riccardo Hernandez’s set is dank and grim as Tyler Micoleau’s bars of fluorescent lighting heighten the feeling of chill and terror. Sound director, Leah Gelpe adds loud pounding between scenes.
The Invisible Hand is thrilling and didactic, with an abrupt ending. Make no mistake about it, Ayad Akhtar is a crackerjack storyteller and currently has two gripping plays in New York to prove it. (He had a third play earlier this year, The Who and The What, at the Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center.)
The Invisible Hand runs for two hours with an intermission at New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East Fourth Street,; 212-279-4200, nytw.org.
Opened Dec. 8. Closes Jan. 4.
Photo: Joan Marcus