What’s the difference between a banker and a terrorist? Ayad Akhtar’s new play attempts to fathom this once unfathomable question as it sounds the depths of global events, relating market “corrections” to the logic of jihad. But The Invisible Hand chews on other, equally compelling questions, too: What and whose interests ultimately shape our political and moral values? Under what circumstances will we stay true to convictions — and what does it take to corrupt them? The title comes from Adam Smith’s Enlightenment-era treatise on self-interest, and the playwright wants us to look at the material actions beneath our professed beliefs.
Akhtar’s musings come in the form of a suspenseful drama that could easily be a television film. Nick Bright (Justin Kirk), an American investment banker coordinating his corporation’s operations in
Pakistan, has been kidnapped. His captor, Imam Saleem (Dariush Kashani), offers to let him earn his ransom by trading from a laptop. The stakes are high: Drones and explosions can be heard outside the concrete walls. Beheading is a distinct possibility, and back home Nick’s wife releases videos pleading for his release.
And there’s a catch. Nick may not control the money directly, and he can’t come within a meter of the computer. Instead
he must instruct Bashir (Usman Ally),
Saleem’s violent, wild-eyed deputy, in
the ways of currency trades, futures sales, and securities shorting. The Wall Streeter, a Princeton grad, makes a great tutor. Bashir, who grew up in the London suburb of Hounslow, is hungry to learn and highly intelligent. The partnership is robust.
As Nick schools his jailer in market economics and the history of international fiscal policy, Bashir draws parallels between imperialism and free-market profiteering. Disrupting a corrupted political system, he concludes, goes hand in hand with exploiting a rigged market. Nick urges restraint, in words that take on chilling power in a hostage situation: “Bulls make money. Bears make money. Pigs get slaughtered.”
Director Ken Rus Schmoll’s production (for the New York Theatre Workshop) is about as taut as you could imagine, and the cast is strong despite some subtle limitations in the powerful script. Akhtar has a superb command of narrative structure, arousing our horrified anxieties as we watch Nick in his cell, bargaining for his life. On the other hand, characters discuss their beliefs in ways that sometimes feel forced by dramatic convention. A fuller, more surprising intersection of belief systems might take shape in a more adventurous form.
Ally is superb as the explosive Bashir — he menaces his captive with bone-chilling cruelty one moment and indulges in Cockney-inflected chitchat over a tea break the next. The angry young man’s evolution by the end of the play is utterly persuasive. Kirk gives a sterling performance as Nick — you can see his mind working fast to negotiate and save himself. He knows what he needs to survive, and emotional intelligence guides him through every supercharged exchange with his kidnappers. But given his predicament, you wonder why this American protagonist remains so unflappably confident. Is this invulnerable quality a testament to the disciplined minds of high finance or a slightly incomplete character? But those nuances don’t matter in the face of the “near future” Akhtar depicts. The Invisible Hand offers genuine insight into the future of the West, and it’s a brutal one to contemplate.