“The Invisible Hand,” by award-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar opened last night at the Westport Country Playhouse. The phrase “the invisible hand” refers to Adam Smith’s theory that the market adjusts itself automatically when irregularities occur because of the self-interest of all the other investors.
In this unusual thriller, financial trader Nick Bright (the excellent Eric Bryant) is kidnapped by a group of Pakistanis who mistook him for his boss, and wanted a $10 million ransom which they planned to use to help their people. Bryant carries off the role of a genial financial tutor and contrasts it with his growing terror and frustration that he’ll never see his family again.
At the outset the set (by Adam Rigg) seems to be the outer edges of a gray cube, but during the blackout that precedes each act, the featureless gray walls slide aside to reveal a dingy prison room where Bryant is being kept. The set is just two chairs, a table, a bed, a slop bucket and a steel cage that provides a secure exit from the room.
While Bright is nominally handcuffed, he has befriended the guard Dar (Jameal Ali) and persuaded him to remove the cuffs when the supervisors are absent. He also explains to Dar how to manipulate the market to do better selling potatoes than he had been doing. You get the idea, but the accent Dar uses makes this a little hard to follow.
We then meet Bashir (Fajer Kaisi), the real captor, and Dar’s boss who is the one demanding the $10 million ransom. Nick explains that he isn’t worth that much to his employers, but that he might be able to make a few million dollars through financial trading if they give him access to information such as Lexis/Nexis and the internet. Bashir is urbane and apparently Western educated and mentions that he had spent time in Trenton, near where Nick went to school (at Princeton). He even has downloaded Nick’s senior thesis on the Bretton Woods agreement. Kaisi as Bashir balances beautifully the hint of a growing friendship with Nick with his essentially terrorist objectives as a kidnapper.
Nick and Bashir work cooperatively to make money by explaining the best way to consolidate credit card debt, but Bashir’s supervisor, the Imam is skeptical and has a cruel and violent streak that keeps us on edge. Rajesh Bose as the Imam gives a powerful and menacing performance that keeps you glued to him whenever he is on stage.
By now, you realize that Akhtar has actually written a suspense thriller, with both financial and violent aspects to keep us guessing. The play takes place in short scenes separated by blackouts with the four characters sparring and trying to gain the advantage. By the end of the longish first act, Nick’s life has been threatened and he has attempted an escape.
The shorter second act moves like wildfire, with new complexities and problems in every scene. The question in our minds is whether Nick will survive and escape and whether they will raise the money they want for humanitarian purposes. That, you will have to see the play to find out. The ending is quite surprising, but the playwright has subtly prepared us for it if you think back through the story.
“The Invisible Hand” had an Off Broadway run at the New York Theater Workshop, where Akhtar won and Obie and an Outer Critics Circle award as best playwright. Jameal Ali is repeating his role as Dar from that production.
The audience was thoroughly engaged in the story, and gave the four excellent actors a standing ovation. “The Invisible Hand” continues through August 6 at the Westport Country Playhouse.
This review was written a week ago for Onstage Blog but somehow never appeared. Sorry. You still have a week to see the show.