Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand opens with a disarming juxtaposition. Nick (Joel Reitsma), an American banker, is being held for ransom under grim conditions in a cell somewhere in Pakistan. Surveying the scene, we brace for the worst, but instead we are party to an unexpectedly friendly conversation between Nick and Dar (Anand Bhatt), the guard charged with watching him. Nick has been trading his professional expertise for better treatment. Moments later, Dar’s superior, Bashir (Owais Ahmed) bursts in abruptly upending the power dynamic, setting the tone for a play full of danger and disquieting reversals.
Audrey Francis adeptly directs this fast-paced production accentuating the internal rhythms of Akhtar’s razor sharp dialogue. She maintains a tone that’s serious but never sentimental, exciting but never escapist. She mines the nuances of the text to intersperse darkly comic moments amid the play’s myriad dangerous ones. All the acting in this show is fantastic and the interplay between Reitsma and Ahmed are especially fun to watch. Together the small ensemble creates a fully realized world making the play’s unusual premise feel eerily plausible.
The issue that has gotten Nick kidnapped is the looming privatization of water, a frightening idea in any country, especially in one so rife with government corruption. His captor, Imam Saleem (Bassam Abdelfattah), got the wrong guy but runs with it. Saleem is a man of limited means trying to serve his community and advance his political agenda in the process. Nick is a mid-level banker whose company doesn’t appear to value him enough to put up his ransom. Both are cogs in a system they can influence only to a limited extent. Nick’s association with people who scheme to sell-out the public good makes him, as far as Saleem is concerned, an enemy of the people. But Bashir, the Imam’s right hand man despises Nick even more vehemently. A London born Pakistani-Brit, Bashir has come to the middle east for idealistic reasons. He wants to resist a corrupt regime enabled by the self-interested policies of western governments. Bashir is also more savvy than Saleem and it is this mix of savvy and self-righteousness that makes him such a great foil for the agnostic, pragmatic Nick. In spite of their unvarnished animosity there are glimmers of mutual appreciation. The two men are intellectually well-matched and, in certain moments, even seem to enjoy each other’s company. And although Nick is a prisoner he asserts an impressive amount of agency. Ultimately though, as the playwright continually demonstrates, the power is always with the person who controls the money.
With The Invisible Hand Akhtar, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning play Disgraced and the acclaimed novel American Dervish, extends his examination of the complex relationship between politics and religious identity into the realm of finance. This play, along with Disgraced and The Who & The What are part of his seven work cycle about the Muslim experience. The play’s title is an ironic reference to Adam Smith’s assertion that individuals acting in their own self-interest may create indirect benefits to society. Exactly which invisible hand Akhtar is referring to in this story shifts as the action of the play progresses. The play raises questions such as: how does trading on inside information fit into this picture? How does market manipulation?
One of the most effective things about the structure of The Invisible Hand is how it demonstrates at a micro-level the way political and financial alliances operate on a macro-level. These four men need each other only so long as their interests are aligned. The play’s cascading revelations draw the audience into morally compromising logic. In one scene I discovered I was rooting for something awful to happen offstage that would benefit the characters onstage. Immediately the playwright swooped in with a reality check. The futures market might be morally agnostic but the circumstances that drive prices always have a human cost.
The show is a good match for The Steep Theatre’s intimate space. The set, designed by Ashley Ann Woods, is detailed and realistic, highlighting the sparse conditions of Nick’s captivity. The richly layered soundscape of the play invokes the surrounding world, from the barking guard dogs to the ever present drone strikes. Original music by Thomas Dixon underscores moments where Nick is alone and adds intensity to transitions between scenes.
The Invisible Hand is a suspenseful, plot-driven drama with a sobering message about the vulnerability of markets and the corruptibility of men.
Playwright: Ayad Akhtar
Director – Audrey Francis
Stage Manager – Lauren Lassus**
Set Designer – Ashley Ann Woods
Lighting Designer – Meghan Erxleben
Sound Designer & Composer – Thomas Dixon**
Costume Designer – Rachel Sypniewski
Props Designer – Jamie Karas
Fight Choreographer – Almanya Narula
Dialect Coach – Sammi Grant
Dramaturg – Sonny Das
Assistant Director – Abhi Shrestha
Assistant Stage Manager – Serena Dully
Production Manager – Catherine Allen
Technical Director – Brian Sprague