- OnStage Connecticut Critic
Having seen Disgraced at the Long Wharf Theater last season, I was eager to see the Pulitzer-Prize winner Ayad Akhtar’s earlier work. Akhtar’s ability to discuss Muslim-Americans relations is astute and sometimes disturbing and I was interested to see how his other works compared. For those unfamiliar with the term (like I was), “invisible hand” refers to a term used by early American economist Adam Smith (Wealth of Nations) describing the unintended social benefits of one’s actions in terms of income distribution and production. With Akhtar’s play, we see the many layers of meaning this 18th century term has in the 21st century: the invisible hand can give, take, and slap hard enough to draw blood.
I know for many this seems like a boring prospect for a play (financial stuff = ZZZZZZZ), but I assure you that it isn’t. As a person who doesn’t know a bond from James Bond, I found the play riveting. The plot centers on American banker, Nick Bright (Eric Bryant), who is kidnapped by a Pakistani terrorist group in order for them to secure monies for local interests. Knowing that his company won’t be able to (or plain won’t) secure his $10 million ransom (“we don’t negotiate with terrorists”), Bright offers to earn the ransom money through the commodities and futures market. Imam Saleem (Rajesh Bose – who was brilliant in Long Wharf’s Disgraced) agrees to Bright’s plan, but only if his disciple, Bashir (Fajer Kaisi), works alongside Bright to learn how to manage the organization’s finances. Luckily, Bright is a Pakistani futures market expert, so he can earn money quite quickly - luckily *and* unfortunately. Nick’s agreement to save his skin evolves into something much more sinister; you leave believing more than ever that money is the root of all evil.
One thing I will say for Akhtar’s writing: he doesn’t write milquetoast characters, which is why his stories are so compelling. They’re fascinating in a rubbernecking sort of way, craning your neck to see what outrageous move they’ll make next. Yet, his characters are authentic enough that we keep circling the accident to see what becomes of them.
Bryant’s depiction of the hostage-turned-Rumpelstiltskin walked a fine line between honesty and hubris. I was shocked at times at Bright’s egotistic utterances to his captors, whispering to myself, “Don’t say THAT, you idiot!” thinking it’d get him punched, whipped, or shot in the head. Kaisi’s Bashir was larger than life; his presence and volatility kept me on the edge of my seat. He played a difficult character in that he had to show a tough exterior despite the chip on his shoulder. Bose plays a remarkably different character than the one he depicted in Disgraced: Imam Saleem is composed and controlled (to a point). Besides some initial stumbles getting comfortable with accents, the performances were strong and persuasive.
As you walk in the theater, it’s difficult not to notice the gigantic, lidded, black box on the stage. “Gives a whole new meaning to ‘black box theatre’,” quips my husband. When the show opens, the room darkens and, as if by sorcery, the box is somehow opened to reveal the set: a small cell. During intermission, the imposing box closed and we prowled around it to figure out how it works to uncover the cell of the imprisoned banker. Kudos to Adam Rigg and his clever, thought-provoking design.
Overall, the Westport Country Playhouse’s production of The Invisible Hand does not disappoint with intense performances, smart design, and thoughtful direction.