The term “blood money” never had so much literal meaning as it does in Ayad Akhtar’s searing new drama The Invisible Hand, now at the New York Theatre Workshop in a powerful production well-acted by a cast of four under Ken Rus Schmoll’s taut direction.
Where Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced—currently having a successful run on Broadway—employs a highly contrived setup (what happens when a Muslim man, a Jewish man, a white woman, and an African American woman get together and start to butt heads?), The Invisible Hand bears the ring of truth—torn from today’s headlines—and is all the stronger for it.
Believed in error to be the American CEO of Citibank in Pakistan, Nick (Justin Kirk), a broker who works for the corporation, has been kidnapped by a band of militants (“a bit of bad luck” is how one of his captors describes the case of mistaken identity). CEO or not, they are demanding a $10 million ransom for his release, and no amount of pleading on Nick’s part will cause them to lower the price they have placed on his life. But not to worry, they reassure him with cold comfort and, occasionally, with a gun to his head. They will be patient; they are not into beheading their captives like some of their other colleagues.
When we first meet him, Nick is handcuffed and in a cell with nothing but a table, a couple of chairs, and a bedstead (the cold, institutional-looking set—all concrete and corrugated metal and fluorescent lights—is by Riccardo Hernandez). He has a tenuous relationship with his guards, the soft-spoken, puppyish Dar (Jameal Ali) and the unpredictable and threatening Bashir (Usman Ally). Above them is Imam Saleem (Dariush Kashani), who is seeking the money to better the lives of his downtrodden people, caught as they are between a continuous state of warfare and their own government’s entrenched corruption that prevents aid of any sort from making it beyond the fists of their greedy leaders.
The only way Nick knows how to stay alive is to earn his own ransom by teaching his captors how to game the monetary market. Over time, Bashir, who grew up and was educated outside of London, learns the ropes, and he and Nick warily start to bond (Bashir refers to his lowering level of distrust as a sort of reverse Stockholm Syndrome, whereby hostages are said to develop a sense of empathy for their captors).
Alternating with scenes of tension (Nick’s life is on the line more than once, and the sounds of American drones and bursts of gunfire are heard in the background throughout the play) are discussions about high finance and how the United States has managed to dominate the world through its calculated manipulation of currency since the end of World War II.
These conversations do tend to run on a little longer than they might, but they make their points convincingly. Pay attention, and you might learn a thing or two about the ways the wealthy and powerful have found to exploit loopholes in the market through quick short maneuvers in defiance of the so-called “invisible hand,” a set of checks and balances said by economist Adam Smith to keep things on an even keel. Certainly Nick understands all of this, and in the end, he manages to help raise $35 million for the group that has been labeled as a terrorist organization by the U. S.
Money, of course, has its own corrupting influence, which is a major point the playwright is making here. There is also the impossibility of supporting corruption, even under extreme duress, without getting blood on your own hands. We do wonder, if Nick gets out alive, will he be able to live with the consequences of the price he has had to pay?
Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.