“The Invisible Hand” follows the money

Artists Repertory Theatre's production of Ayad Akhtar's hostage thriller is sharp and thought-provoking

For a few years now, Allen Nause has talked about staging “The Invisible Hand” in Portland, back when he was artistic director of Artists Repertory Theatre, back before playwright Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced” won a Pulitzer Prize for drama, and right after he returned from a theater tour in Pakistan.

His idea was to bring two Pakistani actors he’d met on the tour to Portland to play in Akhtar’s hostage drama, as a way to extend his mission to connect with the acting community there. And having Pakistanis playing Pakistani characters seemed like a good idea, too. But first visa problems washed out a scheduled run of the play. Then Akhtar’s Pulitzer landed, and the Pakistani-American playwright wanted to do some serious revisions of the play. The world premiere landed elsewhere, the actors from Pakistan never made it to town, and Nause embraced a freelance career as a director and actor, after retiring his artistic directorship at Artists Rep.

But now “The Invisible Hand” has finally appeared!

Connor Toms and Imran Sheikh in ART's "The Invisible Hand"/Owen Carey

Connor Toms and Imran Sheikh in ART’s “The Invisible Hand”/Owen Carey

It’s a nice, sharp hostage thriller on the surface, but then it veers into the territory of political economics and deepens into something deliciously different. Pretty soon the audience, along with the terrorist Bashir (an enemy of the West and capitalism), is getting lessons in how futures work and selling short and the short history of how the American dollar became the globe’s dominant currency (thank you, or curse you, Bretton Woods). And finally what keeps the American dollar on top? The “invisible hand” of capitalism. So, right, a little metaphysics creeps in there, too.

*****

I must admit that I kept expecting a comedy to break out in “The Invisible Hand,” based on this “joke.”

– What happens when terrorists capture a Citibank future’s trader?
– Nothing.

Go ahead, take our future’s traders, but first let’s kill all the lawyers, as Dick the Butcher says in ”Henry VI,” Part II! Which isn’t actually a comedy, either.

But that’s the set-up. Trader Nick Bright is kidnapped by a cell of Pakistani terrorists, who seem more secular than religious. They thought they were nabbing Bright’s boss, who might have commanded the $10 million ransom they’re seeking, but they aren’t getting anywhere in their negotiations for Nick, something Nick keeps trying to tell them. They are contemplating tossing Nick to the executioners of the journalist Daniel Pearl, but Nick comes up with a better idea: He’ll trade for the ransom, using the money he’s stashed in a Grand Cayman account as capital to start. It might take a while, but eventually he’ll succeed and they can let him go! Just get him a computer, some newspapers for intel, and he’ll be off to the races.

Bashir, who grew up in an immigrant neighborhood of Hounslow in London, is skeptical. Well, more than just skeptical: he finds the idea revolting. But his boss, Imam Saleem, sees some merit in it, and soon he and Bashir are launched on a first scheme of taking advantage of a water privatization plan. That’s where the instruction begins, because Nick can’t actually touch the computer himself; he has to work through Bashir. And Bashir needs to know how it all works, before he’ll play along. When Bashir hears that the architect of the water plan is about to be assassinated, they strike—on the stock market, I mean. Is he dead, yet, is he really dead, is he confirmed? Yes? And the money pours in. Nothing beats inside information.

Nick’s a hostage, though. This isn’t a simple business arrangement. Bashir and the Imam want to take advantage of Nick’s knowledge to fund their activities, but they also hate that knowledge, because they see it as the very thing that enslaves them. That tension keeps coming up, success or no. Nick’s life is their hands.

*****

What kind of a guy is Nick? Connor Toms, who also was Nick last fall in Seattle’s ACT Theatre production (also directed by Nause), plays him as a fairly typical Master of the Universe-in-training, I suppose. Arrogant as long as he can get away with it, impulsive but dedicated to the goal of making money, with a naive belief in the rightness of the monetary system. But by the end, maybe he understands what chaos a fast learner like Bashir can create.

William Ontiveros confronts Connor Toms in "The Invisible Hand"/Owen Carey

William Ontiveros confronts Connor Toms in “The Invisible Hand”/Owen Carey

I liked Imran Sheikh’s Bashir, his cockney (occasionally mixed with Pakistani), his anger, the journey he goes on with Nick almost against his will, the cool that prevails at the end. William Ontiveros, who also made the journey down from Seattle, has the appropriate gravity for the Imam, a commanding figure who can be reasonable one moment and order an underling to pull the trigger the next. In that case, the underling was Dar, played by John San Nicolas, whom we meet as he celebrates a small score in potatoes that Nick helped him with. He even turns the rupees he gets out of the deal into dollars, as Nick insists.

*****

“Power and money are an important American obsession,” Akhtar says in an interview included in the program. “You go back to de Tocqueville and see that that’s at the heart of whatever our national identity really is. And, so being interested in that is just, I think, de rigeur for somebody who’s interested in understanding America.”

The primary character in “Disgraced” is Amir, an American-born, Muslim-reared mergers and acquisitions lawyer, though “Disgraced” focuses more on religion than on finance. In “The Invisible Hand,” Akhtar dives right into that American obsession and perhaps what happens when it is absorbed into other cultural contexts. And maybe it also leads to some consideration of the “invisible hand’s” amoral dimension—someone is going to be in power, so it may as well be that someone with the most money.

Because of that, I’m glad “The Invisible Hand” didn’t flip into an “Odd Couple” version of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, as I was secretly urging it to do early in the play. The thought trains that leave the mental station after seeing “The Invisible Hand” are serious ones.

“The Invisible Hand” continues at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison, through April 5.

Comments are closed.