Playwright Ayad Akhtar has Disgraced running on Broadway. It’s found its audience, which responds to the play’s sparkling and insightful dialogue dealing with the complicated relationships among a black woman, a Jewish American, a Muslim Pakistani and a white Protestant, sharply spoken during an elegant dinner party on New York’s upper east side. In a remarkable spurt of good luck for theatre goers, he now has delivered a second play of equal impact, this time at the venerable New York Theatre Workshop across the street from LaMama on E. 4th Street in the East Village.
The new play is The Invisible Hand, set “somewhere in Pakistan, in the near future”; it concerns itself with the treatment of a kidnapped victim, one Nick Bright, an American husband and father who is imprisoned and awaiting word from home as to whether or not a $10,000,000 ransom can be arranged to secure his release. Bright is a hedge fund manager with great skills in the management of money, in the intricate world of puts and calls in the market place, someone whose experience and understanding has made it possible to develop a system of timing short selling of stocks and bonds. His captors have given him a time limit to secure the ransom money or to turn their capital at hand into a number of rupees that would be worth as much as the $10 million. Bright forms a bond with Bashir, in whose charge he has been placed. The two work together, under the further supervision of the local Imam Saleem.
Akhtar is writing about a world into which we see only glimpses in the press, and as such is invaluable in showing us aspects of both worlds that will be foreign to us. The play asks to what lengths captives will go to save their lives, how they will react to the “the invisible hand” that guides their every move. Economist Adam Smith actually invented the phrase in The Wealth of Nations. It refers to an unseen mechanism that maintains equal equlibrium between supply and demand of resources. The play argues the relative importance of religion and money in the search for power, and concludes that money is the winner every time. There are surprises in the conclusions its author arrives at , and they leave us equally shocked and informed. The final moments leave Nick Bright with a future that is both hopeful and troubled.
As is the case with Disgraced, this production is directed, designed and acted to perfection. Justin Kirk, who played a lightweight goofball for several seasons on the TV Series “Weeds”, is here giving a controlled, confrontational, gigantic performance that reflects this gifted actor’s growth as a man and as an artist.
With a series of clanging chords and the slamming of metal doors to indicate the abrupt endings of scenes, the play is engrossing from the opening moment when the two adversaries face each other and the negotiations for the freedom of one commences. Usman Ally has survived as an actor via the common route of regional and TV appearances, but here he makes his NY Theatre Workshop debut with a stunningly fierce performance as Bashir, the interrogator. Dariush Kashani continues his off/Broadway career with a powerful and regal performance as the Imam, and Jameal Ali plays a roly poly lower rank servant with just enough fear and disgust at some of the degrading things he is forced to do.
The history of the play is interesting in that it has finally emerged as a tight, crafty, visceral work that has clearly benefited from its inaugural flights. Initial work on it was begun in 2010 just after the 2008 financial collapse, and it was staged as a one-act play at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in 2012. Four workshops over two seasons followed; it had one other workshop production and one at ACT in Seattle. Throughout the process over twenty actors played the four characters (including at times Akhtar himself) all helping to shape the production on stage today.
Mr. Akhtar’s plays help to shed light on the current religious and philosophical wars that are plaguing us today. I send kudos to Jack Doulin (the casting director) for his skill in assembling a quartet of wonderful actors to fill the demanding roles.
The Invisible Hand is onstage thru January 4, 2015 at New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, New York, NY 10003
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