In my review of The Christians (Wilma Theater, through May 29), I remarked that a discussion about theology in a play can defy our expectations and be passionate, intimate, and engaging.
Now, I must say the same about the stock market and world finances, as shown by the extended conversations in Ayad Akhtar’s gripping drama The Invisible Hand, given a superb production by Theatre Exile.
Held hostage in Pakistan
Ian Merrill Peakes plays Nick, a CitiBank executive captured by a Pakistani Muslim faction — by mistake; they really wanted his boss. An imam, Saleem, played by J Paul Nicholas, demands a $10 million ransom, which Nick knows his wife cannot raise, and his company and country will not pay. A successful stocks trader, Nick offers to use the $3 million he stashed in a Cayman Islands account to earn his ransom through trading.
His captors are understandably skeptical, but Nick is both convincing and committed, and has already forged tentative friendships with young guard Dar (Anthony Mustafa Adair) and Londoner Bashir (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), who wants to learn. Nick, held handcuffed in a tiny room under relentless fluorescent light (set by Colin McIlvaine, lighting by Masha Tsimring), is betting his life on his financial skill; Saleem demonstrates that he’s willing to kill Nick, and Dar, though clearly green, shows that he will pull the trigger when ordered.
“You are a greedy heartless bastard,” Saleem proclaims, “and I think the likes of you are better off dead.”
Money makes the world go round
The harrowing circumstances of Nick’s captivity change when Nick begins tutoring Bashir. Suddenly in his element, Nick shows his student how easy making money through strategic trading can be. Of course, a little inside knowledge – that the terrorists next door intend to assassinate a government minister, for example — helps too. Nick trusts in capitalism — “everyone’s self-interest works to check everyone else’s” — but hedges his bets by scratching a hole in the wall at night, leading to a thrilling Act I climax.
Three months later, Nick is treated more like an employee, with perks (bigger room, better bed, pomegranate juice, Archie comics), but he’s still a prisoner (ankles chained to a heavy wheel). Money pours in, but the leak in one bank account causes a rift between Nick’s captors.
While the kidnapping story is played with shocking brutality in Matt Pfeiffer’s finely tuned production and Mike Cosenza’s fight choreography made me wince and jump more than once, the play’s most fascinating scenes occur between Nick and Bashir, as the Muslim radicalized by London poverty begins to appreciate capitalism. “Making money is intoxicating,” Nick warns him. “You’ve got to stay sober.”
Economics meets terrorism
Similar to last year’s Oscar-winning film (Best Screenplay) The Big Short, much drama and some comedy (“Few wars have been fought between countries with McDonalds,” Nick remarks) emerges from complicated concepts that Akhtar makes easy to understand without these genuine characters sounding like textbooks. The play’s title comes not from the world of terrorism, but economics; though it sounds sinister, the invisible hand is what (supposedly) allows capitalism to self-correct.
Ultimately, The Invisible Hand is not a treatise on economics or a docudrama about terrorism, but a drama about friendships and ambitions. The performances are extraordinarily convincing, and it’s refreshing to see Muslim characters who aren’t evil stereotypes. The American is the minority, and may not be the most sympathetic character — especially for those suspicious of Wall Streeters who play games with other people’s money.
What, When, Where
The Invisible Hand. By Ayad Akhtar, Matt Pfeiffer directed. Through June 5, 2016, Theatre Exile at Studio X, 1340 S. 13th Street, Philadelphia. (215) 218-4022 or theatreexile.org.