Pakistan seems the best setting these days for depictions of moral ambiguity. We see it played out brilliantly in this season's episodes of HOMELAND, where there is no side without both good guys and bad guys. Ayad Akhtar's engrossing THE INVISIBLE HAND, set in Pakistan, is a hostage drama with a twist. Nick Bright (Justin Kirk), a banker who is second in command at the Islamabad branch of Chase, has been kidnapped (By mistake, actually -- they wanted his boss). He now sits in a room somewhere in the hinterlands. Yet when we first see him Dar (Jameal Ali), his guard is cutting his fingernails while Nick asks him about his family. We get our first hint of what is to come when Dar tells Nick that instead of visiting his mother on Sunday, he took Nick's financial advice, invested in a truck and started selling potatoes. Nick may be a prisoner, but he's brilliant, articulate man who converts his captors to capitalism. They may hate the idea of interest (against the teachings of Allah), but they fall in love with the concept of easy profit. Nick makes a deal with his captors, Imam Saleem (Dariush Kasani) and his young disciple Bashir (Usman Ally), that if Bashir will assist him, he will earn his ten million dollar ransom for them. Bashir is an angry young man from Hounslow, a suburb of London near Heathrow Airport that is filled with South Asian immigrant families (many work at the airport). Angry and wounded at the racism of England, he has come to Pakistan to work against the west and the vestiges of colonialism. Nick gives Bashir a crash course in the power of money, the invisible hand that rules everything, and in investment banking. Bashir becomes totally seduced by money. Where Nick is shrewd and cautious, Bashir is greedy. Where Nick still believes in rules, Bashir is ruthless. To say more would give away too much. Suffice it to say that the play becomes a commentary on the West's influence over the East (Though he would hate to admit it, Bashir, after all, is an Englishman, not a Pakistani), and money's influence over everything. What happens when capitalism is imported to a lawless society? What we see through the arguments with the Imam, who wants to use the money to do good in his region, is that money itself can become a religion.
THE INVISIBLE HAND is a fascinating play of ideas couched in the conventions of a thriller. Director Ken Rus Schmoll has maintained the tension and tempo the play demands. There is an unnecessary bit of theatrical spectacle at the beginning of Act II (money spent for no reason); nor did the play really need a scene change. The cast was excellent. Justin Kirk is one of our best actors. He knows how to be totally natural on stage even in a role as talky as this one. He captures Nick's passion for his work, his basic decency, and his horror at cruelty. Usman Ally is appropriately intense as Bashir, a man fueled by anger. Ally is terrific in the scene in which he discovers the powerful rush of making big bucks in a few minutes. Dariush Kasani's Imam can seem a quiet man of God, but turn suddenly into a man who can exercise brutal power.
Don't miss this one!
THE INVISIBLE HAND. New York Theatre Workshop. November 24, 2014.