The Invisible Hand
By David A. Rosenberg
You don’t need a business degree to see “The Invisible Hand” at Westport Country Playhouse. But it helps. Author Ayad Akhtar (Pulitzer Prize winner for his superior “Disgraced”) has much on his mind, choosing to couch his drama in variations on the acquisition and dispensing of money, neglecting character development and a plot that goes somewhere.
The title comes from 18th-century economist Adam Smith who posited that, as the show program puts it, “a free market economy will flourish when all the individuals involved strive to maximize their own benefit.” Self-serving interests are the invisible hands guiding the economy.
Nick Bright, who works for Citibank in Pakistan, is mistakenly kidnapped. (The abductors meant to take Bright’s superior.) Bright’s ransom is set at $10 million, more than three times the amount he can raise from his own resources. How can he involve his captors in his release? Since Citibank won’t help, he devises a plan to raise the filthy lucre by shorting stocks and speculating on futures.
The captors agree. Bashir puts his laptop to use, seizing the opportunity to help his impoverished Pakistani people. But the local Imam is more self-serving, using funds to invest in real estate. Thus a conflict between Bashir and the Imam over the universal desire for legal tender, with Bright as both pawn and go-between.
The evening which, TV-like, jumps from short scene to short scene, also includes Bright’s yearning for wife and young son, his attempts at escape and his fear of being shot or, like Daniel Pearl, beheaded. Dire possibilities hang about like Damocles’ sword.
This would, one supposes, create lots of nail-biting suspense. Instead, the only nail-biting is that committed by Bright himself, after a guard uses a clipper to trim the prisoner’s nails. The clipper becomes, improbably, the instrument by which Bright manages to cut through a thick wall to seek freedom.
Now that the world is witnessing a terrorist event just about every week, the playwright’s emphasis on money, ransoms and greed seems quaint. Trying to be even-handed, he creates a moral equivalency that damns America’s obsession with the dollar with the world’s ironic, parallel trading in and thirst for same. Blame the 1944 Breton Woods agreement on monetary management.
For all its exploration of financial shenanigans, “The Invisible Hand” is short on exploring what makes these characters tick. Yes, Bashir resents that his “father spent his whole life getting stepped on,” but this is standard psychology. As for Bright’s position with the bank, is he as innocent of manipulating the Pakistani government as he claims? We never know. Instead, dialogue hammers home points like, “I believe money, not religion, is the opiate of the people” or “Americans confuse money with righteousness” or whoever “controls the currency controls the world.” Not exactly beacons of enlightenment or emotional entanglement.
Though much of the play is D.O.A ., the acting and direction are very much alive, as are Adam Rigg’s angled set, Matthew Richards’ lighting and Emily Rebholz’s costumes. Especially commendable is Fitz Patton’s ominous sound design.
David Kennedy’s direction is punctuated by effective melodramatic moments. But there’s not much excitement in characters staring at a computer.
As Bashir, Fajer Kaisi bounces between compassion and terrorization. Playing a man confused by his devotion to making a buck, Kaisi fuses the contradictions in a portrait that would be more chilling in a better play. As Bright, Eric Bryant cowers at the prospect of being killed yet manages to find shreds of dignity and defiance.
Jameal Ali is a stoic Dar, under the thumb of his superiors who include Imam Saleem. The latter is the evening’s most complex character as adroitly portrayed by Rajesh Bose. The Imam mirrors the war between greed and philanthropy, putting a human face on a play where money is a greatly desired object but a dull subject.