Three men. One room. A stack of virtual money. Amazing how they can add up to a gripping tale that is so much more than the sum of its parts.
“The Invisible Hand” debuted as a one-act at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in 2012. This tense, provocative thriller about the unholy nexus of international terrorism and big bucks was considered timely then. In the revised, two-act version at ACT Theatre, it seems veritably ripped from yesterday’s headlines — or from a season of TV’s counterterrorism saga “Homeland.”
Author Ayad Akhtar, a Pulitzer Prize winner (for his Broadway-bound play “Disgraced”), here expertly decodes that vivid expression, “blood money.”
Confined to a bunkerlike cell by a Pakistani militant group that kidnapped him mistakenly (they were after his bigshot boss), American banker Nick Bright (Connor Toms) tries to ingratiate himself with his captors, starting with his underling guard Dar (Erwin Galan).
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But when smarmy charm won’t set him free, or reduce his $10 million ransom, Nick bets his fate on the global investment market.
Supervised by glowering chief jailer Bashir (Elijah Alexander), and group honcho Imam Saleem (William Ontiveros), Nick uses all his market savvy trying to more than triple a $3 million personal stash.
There’s suspense aplenty in Nick’s race against time. Indeed, “The Invisible Hand” jolts along like a well-made caper flick, its short,punchy dangling scenes tightly paced by director Allen Nause and a first-rate cast.
But the taut plot is also a great setup for a fierce psychological match, and a useful colloquy on the American dollar as a force for good and evil.
When mere minutes of Internet trading may topple or prop up a shaky government, feed or starve millions, is manipulating the market the morally neutral exercise envisioned by 18th-century economist Adam Smith and his acolytes?
Through a clever series of encounters, shocks and switcheroos, Akhtar investigates that central tenet of capitalism.
As terrified, cocky Nick, Toms is our surrogate pawn in a backroom political game of abductors and victims. (A reference to Daniel Pearl’s murder is especially chilling, in the aftermath of two more recent beheadings of kidnapped journalists.)
Toms is a superbly alert, reactive Nick, as his hopes spike and shatter. One can sense his mental calculations over who is determining his fate, and how to work them. His feral howl of pain, when the brutal truth sinks in, is harrowing.
Ontiveros also impresses as a wily, commanding Imam — an avuncular holy man when it serves him, a vicious top dog when it doesn’t. And not above the seductions of easy cash.
And Alexander is outstanding as Bashir, a jumpy, mercurial British-born Muslim caught between two cultures and philosophies. He clearly articulates the conditions that might turn a disaffected man into a fundamentalist revolutionary.
Ironically, Nick and Bashir are peers in age and intelligence, but their mutual affinity and respect are eclipsed by pitiless historical pressures. Their trading session seminars on short sales and hedge funds, and debates over American supremacy and oppression, could have been didactic, but they’re witty and enlightening.
The production design, especially Brendan Patrick Hogan’s sound track (of voices, drones and music), complements Nause’s staging. (Some non-English dialogue is translated in projected supertitles.)
Nick boasts of never “getting my hands dirty” in his virtual juggling of huge, consequential sums. But Akhtar depicts why that numbers game is not morally neutral, and never can be. The unknowable, “invisible” market forces Smith forecast are made all too visible in this very telling, compelling play.
Misha Berson: email@example.com