There's more than a casual connection between the guns and bombs of Islamic revolutionaries and the puts and calls of American investment bankers. As history has taught us, each group is capable of wreaking havoc on a country, and even civilization itself.
That is why The Invisible Hand by Ayad Akhtar, now at the Cleveland Play House, registers with such force and immediacy. Akhtar, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2013 for his play Disgraced, assembles a play with the precise attention to detail of a master craftsman, and the result is an experience that is sometimes terrifying, sometimes amusing, but always riveting.
Presented on a tidy runway stage designed by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams, which divides the audience in half, the play itself may separate observers in a similar manner. On one hand, it is easy to empathize with Nick Bright, a banker assigned to duty in Pakistan who has been kidnapped by revolutionary forces under the command of Imam Saleem. Their goal is to use Nick's Wall Street smarts to collect huge wads of cash for their community. In particular, they want Nick to come up with $10 million in a year. And if he does, they promise his freedom.
Nick has been separated from his family in the States and he decides to go along, especially since the sinister guy in immediate charge of him, Bashir, is a whip smart Pakistani who was born in Britain and who clearly has a mean streak. The only ray of sunshine at the start of Nick's captivity is provided by Dar, a young soldier under Bashir who seems ready to converse with Nick and cut him some slack.
Even though most will side with Nick, it's clear that Bashir and the Imam have a point when the Imam tells Nick, "It's your job to rape and plunder our nation." And one doesn't have to look far to see the truth of that statement, from the initial intent by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to claim Mideast oil for the U.S. to the current boasts of similar thefts by our current White House resident.
That argument and many others are drawn in clever ways by the playwright as he deftly ratchets up the tension over the two acts. The structure of the play, short scenes which all occur in Nick's cell, is augmented by lighting and sound designs (Michael Boll and Daniel Perelstein, respectively) that begin and end each scene with a slam cut technique that makes your pulse quicken involuntarily.
But perhaps the most compelling element of this play is the way the character arcs have been fashioned. Even though the people are trapped with each other in a small space, their characters have room to expand, react and change. Director Pirronne Yousefzadeh keeps the pacing as tight as a balled-up fist, and shows how the power dynamics keep shifting as Nick teaches Bashir the ins and outs of investing techniques such as selling short.
This information leads to a surprising reversal of fortunes in the second act that is almost too clever by half. But by that time, this production has won you over and you decide to roll with it.
In the central role of Nick, Max Woertendyke embodies all the desperation and fear that would be present in anyone put under this kind of stress. Responding with understandable trepidation at the slightest feints from Bashir or the Imam, Woertendyke makes the audience feel every ounce of terror.
The smooth and highly educated Imam, as played by J. Paul Nicholas, lands a number of cogent debating points as he interacts with Nick, while exerting control over the more impulsive instincts of his right-hand man Bashir. But one of the biggest changes happens to Bashir himself, as he learns from Nick how currency is really the key to power, as their assets grow and money laundering becomes a necessity. As Bashir, Louis Sallan is a ticking time bomb, but there is more subtlety in his methods and motives than are at first evident.
Perhaps one of the most striking character arcs, although virtually silent, is how Dar morphs over time (the play encompasses many months) from a playful pal to a silent and obedient soldier. It is a tribute to the playwright that he never feels the need to put a finer point on this — how apparently good men can be changed, quickly and conclusively, by their surroundings.
As these four characters see their fates diverge in unexpected ways, one gets the sense of how unpredictable the U.S. armed ventures in foreign lands are. And how we are all threatened by governmental systems that are more responsive to the monetary demands of the "invisible hand" of economics than the needs of living, breathing people.
Can money set you free? Sure, maybe for a while. But as we all know, the check eventually comes due.