Money may not be the root of all evil, but Ayad Akhtar’s “The Invisible Hand” makes a strong case for it being responsible for an awfully big chunk of the world’s miseries.
“Hand” (which was just named a London Evening Standard nominee for best new play of the year) is a crazily ambitious Middle Eastern hostage drama that is also an economic dissertation.
You could devote days to reading Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, or you could see the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s mounting of the play on the Copaken Stage and get pretty much the same education in just a couple of hours.
Nick Bright (Jason Chanos), a CitiBank employee in Pakistan, has been kidnapped by an Islamic terrorist group. He’s being held hostage for a $10 million ransom.
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Actually, his captors were going after Nick’s much-more-important boss and got the wrong guy. Turns out CitiBank isn’t about to pay $10 million for a mid-level guy like Nick.
So Nick convinces his captors to let him raise his own ransom. This will involve withdrawing $3 million from his personal account in the Cayman Islands and investing it in the Pakistani stock market.
Unfolding entirely in a dirty concrete and stone room where Nick spends most of his time in shackles, Akhtar’s drama slyly examines how Nick’s financial success rubs off on his holier-than-thou captors.
The opening scene finds a young guard, Dar (Neal Gupta), excitedly reporting how Nick’s idea for cornering the market in Pakistani potatoes has resulted in Dar making a substantial profit.
But Dar has put his money in an interest-bearing bank account, a bit of usury that draws the wrath of bald, bearded Bashir (Andrew Guilarte), a swaggering, profane Brit of Pakistani descent who regards Nick as a “heartless greedy bastard” and treats him accordingly.
Ruling over all three is the Imam Saleem (Rock Kohli), the spiritual leader of this particular band of terrorists. Saleem is an iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove sort, whose rational, civilized manner can’t entirely mask his brute anger and disgust for this infidel whose life he now controls.
At one point Nick explains to Bashir the notion of “the invisible hand,” 19th-century economist Adam Smith’s notion that if governments don’t interfere and everyone acts in their own self-interest, some mystical force will achieve the perfect equilibrium of supply and demand.
For two centuries free-market economists have lived by this theory that “greed is good.”
Akhtar’s play argues that for all our professions of selflessness and piety (Nick is told the money he is raising will be used to ease the plight of poor Pakistanis), in the end, we’re all greedy bastards. Once the money starts rolling in, morality starts rolling out.
As directed by the Rep’s Jerry Genochio, “The Invisible Hand” is terrifically thought-provoking.
But it’s not particularly emotional. Despite some big dramatic moments — at one point Nick is subjected to a fake execution — something is missing.
That something is humor.
“Hand” has all the makings of a savage black comedy, yet it’s played almost entirely straight. This isn’t a fatal misstep, but throughout you can feel Akhtar’s plotting and dialogue looking for a satiric edge that never materializes.
Still, there’s little arguing with the performances. I’m not sure that the playwright even likes the character of Nick, but Chanos’ performance captures the captive’s desperation and his physical and emotional deterioration over many months of captivity.
The real scene stealers here are Guilarte and Kohli who as Bashir and the Imam undergo radical character arcs, mutating from faith-fueled revolutionaries to money-grubbing capitalists.
Martin Andrew’s uber-realistic set is a character in its own right (you can practically sneeze from the dust). Jeff Cady’s production design and Elizabeth Harper’s lighting employ a host of innovative effects, from a stock market crawl across the apron of the stage to a series of animated financial charts projected on the set to cover transitions between scenes.