When you enter the East 4th Street home of New York Theatre Workshop, you can never be sure what you’re going to find. The blank-slate interior has been turned into an amphitheater for Caryl Churchill’s A Number, an Irish bar for Once, a television studio for The Little Foxes, and a multiplex for Scenes From a Marriage. This is not only a radical extension of “form follows function” but a message to playwrights (and audiences) that change is good — even if, on occasion, it fills you with dread.
Dread is in fact the main feeling you get as you walk into the theater as it’s currently configured for Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand. You would not mistake the designer Riccardo Hernandez’s arrangement of concrete slabs and bare fluorescent fixtures in low, corrugated ceilings that fly over your seats for the set of, say, a sprightly comedy. If you guess that it is more likely a holding pen for a kidnapped banker in a third-world country, you’d be on the mark. But it’s also a holding pen for a kidnapped audience: The Invisible Hand is a hand-wringing, throat-clenching thriller that rarely lets up over the course of two hours.
Like all thrillers, it begins with what seems to be a hopeless situation for its hero. For three weeks, Nicholas Bright, a Citibank arbitrageur in Pakistan, has been held captive by followers of the charismatic Imam Saleem. The imam, seeing Bright as a cash cow for financing his work among the local poor, has sought to ransom him for $10 million. Bright knows the absurd sum will never be paid; in any case, we quickly learn that because Saleem has been added to a list of terrorists, neither Citibank nor the U.S. government can help him. Desperate to find a way out, Bright negotiates with Saleem a mad contract: If over the course of a year he can turn a $3 million stake (his own money, hidden in a Grand Cayman account) into $10 million for his captors, he earns his freedom. It’s a good-faith deal; the imam even assigns a deputy, Bashir, London-born but now radicalized, to act as Bright’s secretary and trainee. The cell becomes a trading desk.
Another truism of thrillers is that their premises must not be examined too closely. In this case that’s not hard; Akhtar acclimates you to the plot machinery so subtly (as he also acclimates you to the nearby drone strikes) that you cannot pause long to wonder (for instance) why no agency detects sudden multi-million-dollar activity in a kidnap victim’s accounts. Rather, your focus is kept on the interplay of ideology and plot development, which is Akhtar’s wheelhouse. In that regard, The Invisible Hand, though a genre piece, represents a departure and an improvement on the playwright’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Disgraced (now on Broadway), and its follow-up, The Who and the What. Both are smart and topical treatments of Islam in America, but both also suffer from Ideological Wasting Syndrome, in which the characters are soon crushed as dramatic entities by the weight of the arguments they are forced to wear, like overstuffed backpacks, at all times. They are formulas more than people; you feel like they were created not in Word but Excel.
In The Invisible Hand, the characters still represent conflicting positions: financial ones. Bright stands for the idea that American economic power has, on balance, benefited the world by rationalizing trade and disincentivizing conflict. (“Very few wars have been fought between countries that have McDonald’s,” he points out.) Naturally, Saleem sees it differently; from his perspective, American economic power has written off misery and death in poorer countries as just another cost of business. What’s new here, and a big step forward, is that these ideas are not just position papers (though there’s some of that); they are elements of a power struggle that plays out in dramatic action. Crucially, the characters are changed by their experience and by each other. As Bright starts piling up profits for his captors by shorting various commodities based on insider knowledge they provide, the pious Saleem starts skimming. Bashir, at first a furious barracuda of anti-American zealotry, quickly takes to the excitement of profit as well as to the self-regard such profit can engender. And Bright, observing these changes, begins to wonder if his faith in the fairness and beauty of the market — what Adam Smith called the “invisible hand” that magically balances competing greeds — has been misplaced. Reduced, as a matter of his survival, to a purely strategic self, he understands that he is perhaps not much different from what he was when free.
This all works because Akhtar has hit on a way to make his themes feel urgent. It’s not just the thriller format; it’s that the political problem of meddling in developing countries’ economies, and the seething resentment this engenders, could not be more topical. Yet at its best, the play is disciplined enough to let these matters speak for themselves. The pace is feverish, but the tone is ironic: It’s sufficient to see the shackled prisoner teaching his eager pupil (who still considers the charging or paying of interest a sin) about different kinds of financial instruments. When Bright introduces the Wall Street maxim that bulls make money and bears make money but pigs get slaughtered, Bashir responds, “Not in Pakistan, mate.”
The play isn’t perfect; Akhtar again leaves psychology mostly to the actors. Under the excellent and breakneck direction of Ken Rus Schmoll, they handle it admirably. Justin Kirk (late of Weeds) makes an advantage out of the near-complete absence of emotion in the writing of Nick; other than one explosion of longing for his wife and child, he maintains the sangfroid that would be necessary under the circumstances and natural to his profession. But Saleem (Dariush Kashani) and Bashir (Usman Ally) are more erratic characters, with violence not far beneath the surface. The two actors finesse this beautifully, managing to keep you wondering at all times whether you can relax your guard or whether it might be more efficient to just stay scared. I wish Akhtar had explored the question more thoroughly, though; as it stands, we cannot determine whether these men have a coherent political grievance or are just sadists. Perhaps Akhtar means for us to wonder whether the distinction even exists. In any case, The Invisible Hand has enough on its plate as it questions the distinction between international markets and international mischief — and what that portends for American interests. When Bashir, trying to make sense of puts and calls, exasperatedly shouts, “So what the fuck is a future?” you share his despair.
The Invisible Hand is at New York Theatre Workshop through January 4.