THE INVISIBLE HAND at Westport Country Playhouse

By Marlene S. Gaylinn

Westport Country Playhouse (WCP) audience members sat forward in their seats and not a sound was heard during this tense, hostage thriller, “The Invisible Hand,” by Ayad Akhtar. Unlike the usual, light, summer fare, this is a thought-provoking drama about the part money plays in seeking power and thereby supporting self-interests. The topic is a huge, philosophical dilemma for our time, because the consequences of not understanding the roots of why “Money Makes the World Go ‘Round” (Song: from the Musical “Cabaret”- about WWII) may eventually lead to worldwide destruction.

Ayad Akhtar, a 1st generation Pakistani American certainly lives up to his first name, which means “powerful and able to do things.” His writings not only reflect the position of Muslims in American society, they give us another perspective of our crumbling world. Akhtar’s play “Disgraced,” about Muslims, Jews, Christians, Blacks, and misconceptions in our society, won a Pulitzer Prize. “The Invisible Hand” (2015) received an Obie.

The current play’s title is taken from Adam Smith’s book, “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776),” which contains his theory of “The Invisible Hand.” The theory states, “...A free market economy will flourish when all the individuals involved strive to maximize their own benefit.” And, it goes on to clarify that “… the self-serving interests of the individual will collectively guide the economy to success.

Akhtar’s work explores the influence of the “Invisible Hand” -- in other words, the powerful, global monopolies that distribute “the wealth of nations” today. On another level, it also explores the root of the problem, which is our dualistic, human nature -- the inability to curb our selfish instincts and aggressiveness in order to get what we think we want (but don’t necessarily need to survive) and only hints at our intellectual capacity to cooperate and share the wealth on both the individual level and perhaps, the worldwide scale.

The play opens with Nick Bright (Eric Bryant), a futures trader who works for a large, international bank. He has been kidnapped by radical Muslims while in Pakistan (A quasi-friendly country to the U.S.) and is being held for ten million dollars ransom. His captors, who threaten to torture and kill the American unless they get paid, are playing a rough game of power and wits. Bright bargains for his life by exhibiting his skill to make lucrative trades on the world market. Along the way we gain greater insight to the culture and inner motivations of his jailors, “Bashir” (Fajer Kaisi) and his assistant, “Dar” (Jameal Ali), and the “Imam Saleem” or peaceful, holy man, played by Rajesh Bose.

The three Muslim characters run from one extreme emotion to another, the broken down American strives to survive one day at a time, and yet, the play leaves you with a slight ray of hope that the better side of humanity will somehow win out in the end. I won’t give away the details about the climax, however, I will say that the audience was drawn into the plot, which left more unsettling questions to be resolved than answers.

The entire cast, directed by David Kennedy, is superb and very believable. Adam Rigg’s protruding set takes the audience directly into the miserable jail cell, and Fitz Patton’s sound design, which included drones, bombs and background music, enhanced the tension. The black-outs come so frequently that at times one feels as if one is seeing a film rather than a play.

“The Invisible Hand” is sure to cause debates over the issues being presented, and WCP will be conducting free “Audience Reflections,” events which will give the public an opportunity to discuss the play. For a full list of discussions led by various professors and experts in this controversial area, go to:

Plays to August 6 Tickets: 203-227-4177. This review appears in “On CT & NY Theatre” August/2015

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