An American banker abducted by jihadists in Pakistan must earn his $10 million ransom by making a killing on the market. And as he introduces concepts of high finance to his kidnappers – some concepts that tanked the US economy a decade ago – the term ‘making a killing’ becomes both figurative and literal in Olney’s incendiary production of Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand.
Akhtar, a Pakistani-American playwright square in the midst of his zeitgeist (his Pulitzer-winning Disgraced made him the most produced playwright in America in 2015-16) presents a fascinating argument that matches, if not equates, the zealotry of free market capitalists and the zealotry of jihadi (or any religious fundamentalists, for that matter). Also, that neither are immune from each other: capitalism is far from bloodless, nor are religious zealots exempt from greed and self-interest; not that either are revelations, but the two entities are far more inextricably linked in the Middle East than an upper middle class theatre-going audience may wish to confront.
Any play that can reference 9/11, Daniel Pearl, bin Laden, the Spanish Civil War and the Bretton Woods Agreement, plus have two diametrically opposed leads locked in a room together, and manage to NOT be didactic, preachy, talky, self-congratulatory or dull is a significant artistic achievement. Between Akhtar’s savvy and biting writing, Michael Bloom’s taut direction, and the charismatic and dimensional performances by the cast of four (all making their Olney debuts), this is a cutting, impactful fast-paced production that keeps the oppositional forces onstage and in the script in an impressive balance.
There’s a lot to unpack in this play (so much so that I’d see it again if time permitted), though some of the plot seems a bit inevitable in retrospect: of course the ideologically pure young Jihadist will be swayed by the intoxicating aroma of profit, his faith in his Imam will eventually be tested and shattered, the banker will be devastated by the human cost of his profiteering, the student will grow to surpass both his mentors. That all said, the payoff of a certain “Chekhov’s Gun” plot device at the end of the second act is as devastating as any moment I’ve experienced in a theatre in recent memory.
DC-based actor Maboud Ebrahimzadeh delivers a mighty, sinewy performance as the London-born revolutionary Bashir who travels back to his ancestral land to follow the charismatic Imam Saleem. He has to navigate a tightrope, balancing Bashir’s altruistic desires, passionate beliefs, and the appalling actions he ultimately takes. He remains a sympathetic and dynamic presence, and his journey is quite a roller coaster.
Thomas Keegan also delivers a memorable performance as the banker Nick Bright. He and Ebrahimzadeh work together very well, at first as captive and captor and eventually mentor and pupil. Bright is a fountain of financial information, but only partway into the play does he come to realize that lives are impacted by his numbers, and it’s a particularly affecting moment as he and Bashir watch the profits roll in after an assassinated area politician’s various business enterprises create a market free-fall. Another particularly moving moment is an attempt to record a video for his wife and young son that he’s too overcome by emotion to finish.
The Invisible Hand
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As Imam Saleem, Mueen Jahan — a DC-born actor returning to the area after 20 years in NYC and LA — creates a layered portrait. On his first entrance, he seems a warm, charismatic, almost kindly father figure, so his later outbursts of violence and rage come as a cold shock. Ahmad Kamal’s Dar comes across at first as a genial if slow-witted guard, but watch his transformation at the end, alongside Bashir’s; even wordless, his presence is grounded and chilling.
Roc Lee’s cinematic, symphonic sound design, Luciana Stecconi’s stark, brutal concrete and cinderblock bunker, Jesse Belsky’s clever lights (you always know what time it is by the angle of the sun through the tiny barred window) and Ivania Stack’s costuming (especially Bashir’s transformation at the end) are just as crucial to the success of the production as the four actors.
A few nitpicky quibbles, Ebrahimzadeh appeared to struggle a bit with his working class London accent, and Keegan left such an impact on me this past fall as the young zealot in Solas Nua’s Misterman that it was a challenge for me to see him as a 30-something Princeton-educated banker, and his gruffness came over a bit external. Nevertheless, the renaissance of Olney continues with a challenging, complex tale dripping in irony and a dearth of easy answers.
The Invisible Hand by Ayad Akhtar, directed by Michael Bloom. Cast: Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Mueen Jahan, Ahmad Kamal, Thomas Keegan. Scenic Design: Luciana Stecconi. Costume Design: Ivania Stack. Lighting Design: Jesse Belsky. Sound Design: Roc Lee. Dialect Coach: Zach Campion. Fight Choreographer: Robb Hunter. Production Stage Manager: Elisabeth Ribar. Produced by Olney Theatre Center. Review by John Geoffrion.
[Small world alert: I studied under Robb Hunter in grad school, during which time I was soundly divested of a lot of capital by Maboud E at a couple late night poker games.]