“The Invisible Hand"

By Brooks Appelbaum

“The Invisible Hand,” playing through August 6 at the Westport Country Playhouse, is billed as a political thriller. Certainly, as soon as we see an American hostage held by what appear to be Pakistani terrorists in a cell furnished -- if one can use that word -- by a cot and a table with two chairs, the specter of eventual torture or murder creates a tense two-hour evening. However, playwright Ayad Akhtar, who deservedly won the Pulitzer for the more shocking and effective “Disgraced,” here fails to create completely three-dimensional characters, so the evening loses its full dramatic force.

Nick Bright (Eric Bryant), an American investment banker working for CitiBank in Pakistan, has been kidnapped by mistake (his supervisor was the intended target). His ransom is set at an impossible $10 million, so his only hope is to convince kidnapper Bashir (a powerful Fajer Kaisi) and Imam Saleem (Rajesh Bose, as terrific here as he was in “Disgraced”) that he can raise the money himself, using his skills as a player on the stock market.

To accomplish this, he must have his hands free, and he must have access to a computer. Bashir agrees to the first request, but not to the second, exactly; realizing that Nick can become, in Saleem’s words, “a cash cow,” Bashir commandeers the computer and Nick teaches him the tricks of the trade (pun intended).

Meanwhile, we are constantly aware of American drones flying overhead, of political instability, and of the volatile nature of Nick’s plight: at any moment, his captors might decide he is worth more dead than alive.

While the script contains all the potential for deep investigation into numerous topical and complex issues from each man’s point of view, Akhtar largely treats these issues in a superficial way. However, director David Kennedy has assembled a terrific cast, although one wishes he had guided Bryant towards a less glib and more desperate performance as Nick. As Dar, who is nearly silent other than a brief conversation with Nick at the play’s opening, Jameal Ali is a powerful presence, and it’s telling that the character who speaks least is ultimately the most frightening. Bashir, marvelously played by Fajer Kaisi, has a dangerous temper, a quick mind, and flashes of darkly wry wit. And as mentioned above, Rajesh Bose mines the character of Imam Saleem, coming as close as an actor could to creating a unique and individual person.

Adam Rigg has created a puzzling scenic design. The fourth wall is made literal with two deep blue panels intersecting at right angles that thrust out over the stage and shield Nick’s cell from view. These panels open at the top of the show, close at intermission, and open again at the beginning of the second act. One wonders why they are necessary, since the fourth wall is such a fundamental theatrical concept.

Otherwise, the cell is appropriately spare and frighteningly cage-like, with an upstage door to the outside world that makes a bone-shaking boom (the sound design is by Fitz Patton) whenever a captor enters or departs.

Matthew Richards’ lighting design could be more effective; the cell is quite brightly lit in most scenes, and this takes away from the sense, which Nick expresses often, that the captive is pretty much obliterated from the world.

Emily Rebholz deepens the story with her costume design; the costumes clearly and elegantly delineate each character’s journey.

In a deeply ironic move, what becomes most thrilling in “The Invisible Hand” is watching Nick teach Bashir how to manipulate the stock market; and considering the ending, which I won’t disclose, this, perhaps, is Ayad Akhtar’s strongest point. As his script damns the way that money taints every character, no matter that character’s highest intentions, the play’s lens turns back onto the audience. Akhtar seems to be saying that greed is only a matter of degree. Whether American or Pakistani, Judeo-Christian or Muslin, captor or captive, no one escapes.

“The Invisible Hand” could certainly be a stronger script, but one must applaud Westport Country Playhouse, David Kennedy, and Artistic Director Mark Lamos for taking it on.

The Invisible Hand runs through August 6. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org

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