Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Off-Broadway Review—"The Invisible Hand"

The Invisible Hand
Written by Ayad Akhtar; directed by Ken Rus Schmoll 
Performances through January 4, 2015
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, New York, NY
Ally and Kirk in The Invisible Hand (photo: Joan Marcus)
With his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced doing boffo biz on Broadway (and a likely front-runner for the Tony Award), let's see if playwright Ayad Akhtar is not just a one-trick pony. Happily, The Invisible Hand—which shrewdly shows how money is the root of all evil, whether capitalism or terrorism—proves he isn't: it's another smart, provocative, hard-hitting and all too relevant drama.

After Nick Bright, a broker working in Citibank's Pakistan office, is mistakenly kidnaped—the target was his boss—the group who did the deed decide to try and extort money from the bank for his ransom. But the $10 million they are asking is, in Nick's own words, far too much for someone of his relatively minor stature; but his captors remain steadfast, assuming the dirty American bank will cough up the money.

After weeks in captivity, Nick makes a deal with the men: he will use $3 million from his own offshore acount to invest in the market until he raises $10 million. The group's head, the respected elder Imam Saleem, agrees to allow his protege, the hot-headed Bashir—a London-born Arab who is in Pakistan to wage jihad like, he says, the many leftists who turned into freedom fighters against Franco in the Spanish Civil War to assuage their guilt over living comfortably in the West—to become Nick's financial "assistant."

Although their investments begin well, a brilliantly written and staged scene shows how Nick quickly realizes that working financial angles for his captors has a plethora of moral quagmires: especially after their immediate windfall comes after a prominent Pakistani and his wife (both of whom he knew socially) are killed in a terrorist attack at a wedding. Parallelly, Bashir becomes giddy, almost scarily so, when he sees the ease with which they've made $700,000 in 10 minutes. 

Akhtar's writing skillfully treads the blurred lines separating freedom fighters from terrorists and surviving at all costs from doing what's morally right: he adroitly positions his characters and their explosive behavior in the front lines of the so-called war on terror. If Disgraced found tough insight into that war through two couples in a well-appointed Manhattan apartment, then The Invisible Hand is its flip side: a dispatch from that endless war, with lives on the line for nothing more than cold hard cash.

Since the play began life as a one-acter, there's a noticeable difference in the writing: act one has a simple but forceful elegance that underlines its brutal truths about both sides; after intermission, there are blunter statements of physical and mental brutality. Some may find the sheer viciousness of the play's final moments too obvious, but it works perfectly as the only possible ending for a story that's been leading to ever more dangerously fraught situations for everyone involved.

Ken Rus Schmoll directs with alternate muscle and finesse on Riccardo Hernandez's starkly imposing set (with bonus points for Tyler Micoleau's exquisitely evocative lighting), while the actors—Justin Kirk (Nick), Usman Ally (Bashir), Dariush Kashani (Imam) and Jameal Ali (Dar, a gun-toting minion)—give firmly commanding performances in roles that could easily have become caricature.  All of that, combined with Akhtar's assured script, makes The Invisible Hand another winner by New York's playwright of the moment.

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