Directed by Ken Rus Schmoll
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
Ayad Akhtar’s “The Invisible Hand” currently playing at the New York Theatre Workshop is an intelligent, emotionally charged, and captivating exploration of the complex dynamics of self-interest in a globally codependent environment. Under Ken Rus Schmoll’s electric direction, the ensemble cast leads – sometimes propels – the audience through a series of “ah-ha” moments which culminate in the kind of rare catharsis that allows the audience to not only settle back in their seats but also equips them with a renewed awareness of the fragility of global politics and economics.
The first “ah-ha” moment occurs as American Citibank investment banker Nick Bright (played with a beguiling innocence by Justin Kirk) is being interrogated by Bashir (played with the innocence of a viper by Usman Ally) after being taken hostage “somewhere in Pakistan” and held hostage for a ten million dollar ransom. Despite Nick’s protestations that he is not worth that much to Citibank, Bashir and the Imam Saleem (played with a diabolical intensity by Dariush Kashani) persist in making the demand for ransom without reducing the amount: they see Nick as their most recent “cash cow.” The ceiling of Riccardo Hernandez’s almost claustrophobic Quonset hut First Act set intentionally envelopes the audience drawing them right into the interrogation and the “ah-ha” here is, “Wait, this play is ripped right out of today’s news!”
The second “ah-hah” moment is somewhat more challenging especially to an American audience. In the midst of the interrogation, both sides attempt to gain the upper hand in negotiations and Nick attempts to up his game by getting close to his guard Dar (played with a jagged compassion by Jameal Ali). He convinces Dar to convert his rupees to dollars and start an interest-bearing savings account. Not the best of ideas. When he discovers the ploy, Bashir confronts Nick with, “You and your [expletive] interest eating up the world like cancer. You been teaching [Dar] about cancer then?” The action in this scene of the play is particularly gripping and all four actors deliver remarkably authentic and honest performances. There is not one moment the audience is not convinced they are in the midst of a life-or-death struggle and the “ah-hah” here is the devastating possibility that, “This is why they (Al-Qaeda, ISIS, etc.) absolutely hate the United States.”
The third “ah-hah” moment is the most challenging and even disturbing and will resound in the minds, bodies, and spirits of the audience long after it emerges from the relative safety of theatre into a world it will never quite see the same again. This is transformative theatre of the very best kind and is not for hard of hard or closed of mind. Nick convinces Bashir and the Imam he can raise the needed ransom by practicing his craft as a securities expert, dealing in puts and futures trading. Unable to handle a computer himself, Nick has to teach Bashir all he knows about trading. In this learning process, the balance of power shifts and Bashir needs Nick less and less to amass a fortune. What Bashir initially sees as American-brokered cancer he eventually sees as the “balm in Gilead” for the brokenness of his “corrupt country.” Part of Nick’s information shared with Bashir concerns the concept of “the invisible hand.”
As Nick begins to make millions of dollars, he explains to Bashir during a trade: “Fine. But see how short that window was? It was just a few minutes before the market started correcting by itself. At the end of the day, everybody’s self-interest works as a check against everyone else’s. That’s what they call the invisible hand. The free market is guided by the confluence and conflict of everyone’s self-interest, like an invisible hand moving the market.” Bashir’s self-interest becomes paramount and he assumes the power Nick once had. Nick tells Bashir early in his confinement, “Power is what it is. Some have it. Some don’t. Those who don’t, want it. The best the rest of us can hope for? That those who have it, will use it well. For all its faults, America tries to use it well.” Bashir does not believe that is true of America and learns how to acquire the power America has had but, in his opinion, misused.
The play ends with the shocking release of Nick into the turmoil around him, into a very dangerous environment where he might lose his life. The freedom Nick seeks is finally granted with terms he did not expect. He is not longer needed and has inadvertently given his captor the upper hand. The “ah-hah” is, “This invisible hand” is operative in the everyday lives of the members of the audience: our self interest works against everyone else’s and it is anyone’s guess how the confluence and conflict of everyone’s self interest will play out. Who will be captive and who will be captor is always in the balance.
In addition to Riccardo Hernandez’s remarkable set (which breaks down and expands during the intermission, creating a scene of its own), Tyler Micoleau’s stark and minimal lighting and Leah Gelpe’s eerie and bombastic sound design support the innovative dramatic arc of Mr. Akhtar’s engaging play. In a delightful moment of foreshadowing, Bashir tells Nick, “I know you don’t get it, but sometimes the revolution is violent. And sometimes the peace can only come after the violence.” Bashir exacts violence on both his spiritual leader and his American tutor and one wonders what kind of peace he has ushered in. If there is one play the reader must see before year’s end, “The Invisible Hand” is that play. It will transform life, challenge established points of view, and shatter the most resistant weltanschauung.