More than a year after winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Disgraced — Ayad Akhtar’s scorching play about identity politics in post-9/11 New York — made it to Broadway this season, if in a somewhat flattened production. Now this young playwright has defied the laws of the Sophomore Jinx with The Invisible Hand, running off-Broadway in a production that shows beyond any doubt that this writer has a rare combination of perfect pitch for dialogue, a dazzling sense of the dramatic and a keen ear for what’s on our minds when we’re not being distracted by the Sony hacking sideshow.
The New York Theatre Workshop, in the East Village, has been converted into a Pakistani holding cell, it’s claustrophobia-inducing corrugated tin roof extending out over the audience. In an act of terrorism gone somewhat awry, a small group of Muslim fundamentalists has kidnapped Nick Bright (played by the completely engaging Weeds and Angels In America star Justin Kirk), a money manager for Citibank. It was his more powerful boss they were after. Nevertheless, they want a $10 million ransom for his return — a price, the panicky Nick explains to deaf ears, well above his pay rate.
Fearing beheading, he offers to guide his captors to that $10 million by manipulating the local markets through a series of increasingly sophisticated transactions executed — and never was the word more apt — by Bashir (Usman Ally), an excitable young man with circumflex eyebrows, radicalized during his upbringing in a racist London suburb. Bashir is a follower of Imam Saleem (Dariush Kashani), whose benign aspect barely conceals a fierce intellect and a ferocious hatred of Western values.
Bashir becomes Nick’s student and as their money multiplies, even the Imam comes to appreciate the value of a smart investment adviser. Nick warns Bashir against overdosing on this new drug, liquid currency, even as the dough piles up and Bashir begins to doubt the purity of the Imam’s devotion. Money changes everything. Of course.
The dialogue among the three (a fourth and no less key role, of a subservient captor, is beautifully underplayed by Jameal Ali) sounds at times like a lesson in Stockholm Syndrome as Nick appears to get off on the challenge of enriching his despised captors. Yet it’s testament to the quality of Kirk’s performance that Nick’s seriousness of purpose is always connected to his intense desire not to die. Violence is mostly, but not entirely, kept at bay, and the victims are not always the ones we might expect.
The Invisible Hand — the title references Adam Smith’s definition of the free market — vibrates with intelligence. Akhtar has more than a little Bernard Shaw in him, filling his characters with beautifully crafted serves-and-volleys for the pleasure of hearing passionately held ideas argued by the dramatic equivalents of top-seed tennis players. Except that there’s far more at stake in Nick’s dangerous game than a mere trophy, and the ending has, to pile on the literary name-dropping, the surprising wrench of an O. Henry short story. It’s a don’t-miss.