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The Invisible Hand

By Ayad Akhtar; Directed by Ken Rus Schmoll 

Off Broadway, New Play
Runs through 1.4.15
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street


by Sarah Moore on 12.15.14

The Invisible HandUsman Ally and Justin Kirk in The Invisible Hand. Photo by Joan Marcus


BOTTOM LINE: This thrilling new drama by Ayad Akhtar features fine performances, strong direction, and Akhtar's best play of the year.

It’s difficult to recall the last time a playwright debuted three new plays in New York in one year. Following The Who and the What (LCT3) and the Pulitzer prize-winning Disgraced (Broadway), Ayad Akhtar’s newest play The Invisible Hand opened at New York Theatre Workshop on Sunday, and I think it’s my favorite of his work.
Justin Kirk (known from Weeds and HBO’s Angels in America) stars as Nick, an American Citibank employee who was kidnapped from the US and is being held for ransom in Pakistan. Imam Saleem (Dariush Kashani), the leader of Nick’s captors, has recently been put on the terrorist list, so the US can’t negotiate. The Imam is demanding $10 million, which Nick knows he can’t get. To make his ransom, he offers to use his banking knowledge to trade stocks, to make the money for his captors.
The suspenseful atmosphere of the play is designed by Riccardo Hernandez, who has created a blank concrete cell inside the New York Theatre Workshop, with a metallic ceiling with a changing height to reflect tension. The sound design by Leah Gelpe is also superb.
Henchmen, Dar (Jameal Ali) and Bashir (Usman Ally) interact with Nick on a daily basis; in spending time with Nick, they have learned about finance and trading. Bashir finds Nick’s Princeton thesis on currency on Lexis Nexis, commenting that he wishes he had gone to uni for economics. Nick’s capitalist American perspective is all about the power of the US and the value of the dollar. He’s constantly reminding Dar and Bashir to change their rupees into dollars.

The Imam says that the money is being used to fix roads in his country, though we see that isn’t entirely true as the play goes on. On the surface, the play is about economics. The title is a reference to the idea of "the invisible hand" allowing the market to self regulate. (Don’t worry if you’ve never taken an econ class -- it’s all explained in simple terms.) Nick uses his knowledge of economics and banking to save himself and to make money for the Imam. The fate of his life depends on making money. Of course, the deeper commentary of the play is about capitalism, and how it destroys us. Is capitalism the root of terrorism?

What keeps the play from feeling like a lecture is the dramatic tension created by using these principles as plot points. The economics lessons are necessary exposition to getting at the root of the political drama Akhtar is exploring, as well as gaining insight into our four characters. As Bashir carries out the trades online that Nick designs and directs, we see that they have a bond growing based on the ideas of these economics and how they are learning from each other. Yet Akhtar manages to craft an ending that is both satisfying and surprising.

All four actors are excellent. Justin Kirk believably portrays a Wall Street savvy American, who constantly has to recalibrate his place, and figure out how to trade his banking knowledge for a ticket out of Pakistan, but he shows warmth and charm as we see how he can get people on his side. Dariush Kashani brings layers and dimension rather than playing to “terrorist” stereotypes. The production is smartly and excellently directed by Ken Russ Schmoll. He keeps the plot moving and creates the appropriate suspense and tension necessary to create this great production.

(The Invisible Hand plays at New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, through January 4, 2015. Performances are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7PM, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 PM and 8 PM. Thursdays and Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM, Sundays at 2PM and 7PM. Tickets are $35-$75 and are available at Ticket Central at 212-279-4200. )