Somebody give this playwright a Pulitzer. Oh, right — Ayad Akhtar already has one, for a previous play, “Disgraced,” which is currently running on Broadway. Although this new one continues the scribe’s interest in the clashing ideologies of Americans and Muslims, “The Invisible Hand” is far more politically provocative, opening as it does in a Pakistani prison where an American banker is being held for ransom. Confounding initial indications, the play is not a captive narrative about pain and torture but a scary (and dreadfully funny) treatise on the universality of human greed.
Akhtar takes the title of his play from Adam Smith, who opined that “the invisible hand” of free market forces will function as an automatic corrective whenever the economy is out of whack. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner,” Smith declared, “but from their regard to their own self interest.”
That quasi-religious belief in the profit motive is something to keep in mind during the first act of this charged drama, which opens in a bleak prison cell somewhere in Pakistan, where an American banker named Nick Bright (Justin Kirk, earnest and ultimately endearing), is now in his third week of captivity. Riccardo Hernandez designed the chilling cinderblock of a set and Tyler Micoleau provides the punishing lighting, jointly establishing (with a nice assist from Leah Gelpe’s sound design) a claustrophobic environment that would drive anyone mad. Under the circumstances, Nick is remarkably self-possessed.
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But not even the repetition of our mantra (Wait for the Profit Motive to Kick In) can cut the tension when Bashir (the totally commanding Usman Ally), Nick’s heavily armed and thoroughly imposing captor, steps in to harangue his prisoner for the failure of Citibank to cough up his exorbitant $10 million ransom. The fact that the intended target was Nick’s boss cuts no ice with Bashir or his frighteningly serene Imam Saleem (the charismatic Dariush Kashani). One rich American is as good as another — and as expendable.
“Cutting off my head is not going to accomplish anything,” Nick argues when Bashir threatens him with this fate. He goes on to explain that he could use his skills as an investment banker to make his ransom. He did, after all, make $20 million for one filthy rich family in the Punjab.
Finally, the profit motive kicks in! Not a moment too soon, either. Helmer Ken Rus Schmoll has directed this first act with the heart-in-mouth tension of a full-blown political thriller, and if Nick wasn’t flinching from the constant threat of torture and/or death from both the volatile Bashir and the more silently lethal Imam Saleem, some members of the audience were.
But Akhtar has far more interesting things on his mind than the barbaric practices of tribal cultures. Once Nick’s captors see proof of his moneymaking skills, they quickly move to capitalize on them — all for the good of the community, of course. The saintly Saleem will bring precious water to the people of his parched region and the idealistic Bashir has visions of fertile fields, functional schools and hospitals, and full employment.
By decree of the Imam, Nick won’t actually be unshackled to work his magic. Instead, he’s to train Bashir in the fine art of accumulating obscene amounts of wealth by clever maneuvers in the world money markets. As it turns out, Bashir is a quick study, having acquired an excellent education as well as a wonderfully low-class accent in England.
Before you know it, the two guys have buddied up and are having a great time playing for big stakes at a dangerous but thrilling game. The delicious thing about these extremely well-written (and instructive) scenes of high finance is that these religious Muslims are no more troubled by the morality of what they’re doing than their partner, the American freebooter. Not that it would ever occur to Nick to question the ethics of his profession. He does what he does because it’s something he does well.
This amity won’t last, of course. After all, we’re in Pakistan, where political corruption rules, and where saints and terrorists alike can be tempted by great wealth and power. Even Dar, the gentle jailor sweetly played by Jameal Ali, gets excited at the prospect of making a few dollars by illicitly trading potatoes.
But by the time this sly and subtle plot shifts into darker territory, Akhtar has made his points of irony many times over. The enemies of America may honestly despise us for worshipping money. But when given the opportunity to benefit from our capitalist know-how, they don’t want to learn the secrets of our engineering expertise or educational skills, or even our advanced communication technology. What even purists like Bashir and Saleem really want to know is how to become filthy rich.