‘The Invisible Hand’ at Steep: Cash is king, and even the godly bow to its golden crown
Review: “The Invisible Hand” by Ayad Akhtar, at Steep Theatre extended through Nov. 18. ★★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson
If power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, what shall we say about the allure – no, the infection — of wealth? Perhaps mammon is the perverse god whom man created, not in his own image but as his highest aspiration and ideal. Money, money, money, money, money. Get a good taste of it only to crave more.
That’s the object lesson, the demonstration, of Ayad Akhtar’s wrenching, fearsome play “The Invisible Hand,” which now commands the little stage at Steep Theatre in a production directed by Audrey Francis that is well worth adding to your must-see list.
Nick is an American banker working in Pakistan who has the bad luck to be kidnapped by operatives working for an imam. They thought they were nabbing the American bank president but got Nick instead. No matter. They want $10 million in ransom for this financial functionary, or they will kill him.
Ridiculous, scoffs Nick. OK, he might be able to raise two mil, maybe three, tops. But ten? Not possible. He’s just a guy, a worker. And better his captors should score three million than nothing. But the Pakistanis are unmoved. The number is ten. They would have no problem erasing Nick. An incidental American. Who cares?
Nick, played by Joel Reitsma with reeling intensity and credible immersion into the financial escapade to come, counters with a tempting proposition: If his captors advance him a bit of seed money, he could play the market for them to raise his own ransom. While they don’t exactly get it, the Pakistanis – Imam Saleem (cool, dangerous and remorseless in the person of Bassam Abdelfattah) and his underling and Nick’s day to day minder Bashir (the droll, impetuous and ever threatening Owais Ahmed) decide to let this play out for a while.
Not only is Nick confined to his prison cell (Ashley Ann Woods’ bleak design is only made the more forbidding by Steep’s compact space), but he’s also not allowed to touch the computer. Bashir will serve as his amanuensis. It is a testy partnership. Nick pronounces the first principle of playing the market: Bulls and bears get rich, pigs get slaughtered. Unlike the stern imam, Bashir is capable of laughter, and he’s amused by that qualifier: “Not in this country!”
But when Nick’s very first gambit is put in play and Bashir sees their gains climbing, the “pigs” principle kicks in. Nick commands Bashir, at the laptop, to sell now! Bashir predictably replies: No, man, are you crazy, the price is still going up. Nick storms at him. Bashir relents – and moments later watches the tide turn against them. But they’re good; they have their winnings. And Bashir is convinced of Nick’s market savvy.
All is not so great for the prisoner, however. Nick wants to build up the accumulating cash for larger investments and more ample returns, the sooner to hit his mark of $10 million. But the imam diverts some of the gains into meeting his people’s immediate needs. Tensions rise. Nick flies off the handle, only to be sharply reminded that there is no real partnership here: He is a prisoner whose life hangs by the imam’s grace. And Abdelfattah’s icy imam, a former journalist who seethes with barely suppressed anger, makes it abundantly clear that his mercy does not fall from heaven upon the miserable banker beneath.
But what have we here? Internal strife among Nick’s captors, and – surprise, surprise – it’s about money, the swelling piles of the stuff that Nick is raking in for them. Nick warns Bashir early on that the acquisition of hard cash is addictive; it does things to people. Bashir waves him off: This $10 million price for Nick’s release is strictly for the relief of his countrymen. Meanwhile, someone has invested a tidy sum in a splendid new house. Someone is also finessing the books.
As newfound wealth dazzles and splits his captors, Nick sees his own situation begin to deteriorate sharply. Both Bashir and the imam suspect him of colluding with the other. He is shunned, isolated, terrified – until, marvel of marvels, a figure he thought he knew now appears before him in really swell weeds. Money talks. It can also pull a trigger, or make a body look mighty fine.
Watching the madness unfold is Dar, the Pakistani everyman. Anand Bhatt gets this awakened innocent just right. A happy-go-lucky guy at the outset, gregarious, helped and won over by Nick’s investment tips, Dar makes a full turn to darkness and mistrust — coin of the realm.
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com