There are no heroes in Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand, now playing Off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop. Instead, the playwright has created complex and engaging characters that defy the simplistic stereotypes that often make Islamic militants into caricatured villains.
His play, tightly directed by Ken Rus Schmoll, is a thrilling and unsettling tale that challenges the global effects of U.S. economic dominance while also critiquing the political idealism that transforms ordinary men into terrorists.
Akhtar is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced, which is now enjoying an open-ended run at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre (click here to read my review of that production). The Invisible Hand is further proof that he is a playwright to be reckoned with. An American-born writer of Pakistani heritage, Akhtar explores Muslim identity in relation to politically fraught, contemporary world events. He doesn’t shy away from depicting the violence often associated with fundamentalist Islam, but he also makes it clear that there are other factors that contribute to that violence.
The Invisible Hand is set in Pakistan, sometime “in the near future.” Nick Bright (Justin Kirk), an American investment banker, has been kidnapped by Islamic militants and is being held prisoner. Nick tells his captors that there is no way his employer, Citibank, will pay a $10 million ransom for him. So he proposes a deal to use his financial savvy and knowledge of the markets to secure his freedom. In other words, his strategy is to raise millions of dollars for this terrorist organization in order to save his own life.
Imam Saleem (Dariush Kashani) is the leader of this group. He tells Nick that as a young journalist he wrote a story about how funds approved and financed to fix a dilapidated road had been diverted for ten years running. His editor killed the story, Saleem was fired, and his father was beaten to death. That’s what set him on his current path, which he sees as an effort to upend a corrupt system and fight to establish one that will benefit the downtrodden people of Pakistan. Surprisingly, despite his status as an imam, religion seems to have little to do with Saleem’s political ideology.
Nick’s efforts to raise large sums of money through investments is overseen and abetted by Bashir (Usman Ally), a British-born man who has come back to the land of his parents in order to fight on its behalf. Bashir proves to be a quick study, although his interpretation of how the United States secured its leadership of the global economy following World War II differs from the way Nick interprets the same events. Nick argues that the U.S.’s intent was to stabilize the world market and prevent an economic collapse. But Bashir is insistent that “he who controls the currency controls the world,” linking what the U.S. accomplished to a long line of colonial efforts that were purportedly about “bringing civilization to the savages” while really plundering their natural resources.
Akhtar’s inclusion of such dialogue links his characters’ motivations to larger debates about America’s role in fermenting the backlash against its political and economic interests. However, further developments in the plot—which includes infighting amongst the terrorist group and an increased level of violence in its actions—removes any sort of moral high ground to Bashir’s position. The play’s conclusion is dark and disturbing and Nick’s own culpability in what happens is brought into sharp relief.
The four-man cast is excellent. Kirk radiates charisma, and his very likability is what makes Nick a frustratingly sympathetic figure even when you know that what he’s doing will have far-reaching and extremely damaging consequences. Ally projects a good mix of petulance and intelligence, and his character’s growth into a strong and capable leader is charted nicely in the actor’s performance. Kashani has a riveting intensity, particularly in a scene towards the end of Act One where he demonstrates his capacity for skillful manipulation. Jameal Ali, who portrays the guard Dar, has a child-like enthusiasm at the start of the play that becomes tempered down as the show progresses.
Riccardo Hernandez’s menacing set design with its cement walls and corrugated steel ceiling capture the depressingly claustrophobic environment of Nick’s imprisonment. Tyler Micoleau’s lighting is similarly evocative, as is Leah Gelpe’s subtle sound design with its background buzz of drones and distantly heard bombs. Schmoll’s direction perfectly captures both the darkness and unexpected moments of humor within Akhtar’s script, making this production one of the most compelling theatrical experiences of the year.
The Invisible Hand performs at New York Theatre Workshop (79 East 4th Street) through January 4, 2015. Performances are Tu, W, Su at 7; Th-Sa at 8; mats Sa & Su at 2. Tickets are $35-$75. For more information, visit http://newyorktheatreworkshop.org.