Seattle’s ACT Theatre has always been on the cutting edge of top tier live theater here in Seattle (as least since 1990, when I arrived in Seattle). Their inaugural piece, for their 2014 season, is no exception. Its production of Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand is ripped-from-yesterday’s-headlines current, a harrowing tale of captivity and terrorism, an engrossing economics lesson, and a parable about the complexities of power in an increasingly dangerous world, all rolled into one. After a week or so of previews, it opens today, Sepember 11, and runs through September 28.
Why was I surprised to learn that Akhtar’s play Disgraced won 2013’s Pulitzer Price for Drama? After viewing this, I’d only only be surprised if he never wins another.
On our way to the theater, Handsome Half and I were hearing about the crisis in Iraq on NPR: the ISIS murders, the President’s response, the fallout. Once in the theater, we watched a play about…an American banker (Nick Bright, played by Connor Toms) in Pakistan, kidnapped and held for ransom by a militant group, and threatened with execution if a ransom of $10 million isn’t paid. Except that Nick is a low-level bank manager, and the bank won’t negotiate with his captors, since they’re members of a terrorist group.
But Nick’s not an ordinary bank manager: his gift is making money, through his skill in leveraging the futures market in currencies, so his captors make him a deal: if he can make enough to earn his ransom, he’ll go fee.
Economics bored me into a stupor when I was in college. Then Paul Krugman came along and made the subject must-readable to this layperson. Now Mr. Krugman should take a lesson. Watching economics in action has never been more suspenseful or fraught with tension.
The play’s title comes from Adam Smith’s 1776 book, Wealth of Nations, in which, to summarize, he explains that men participate in an economic system only for his own gain; with enough so participating, the system is, in a sense, guided by an invisible hand directing the desired outcome for those participants. This explanation does, indeed, drive the action. While the characters participate in the system and influence it, eventually the system self-corrects.
The irony of this is that Nick turns his captors, especially Bashir (Elijah Alexander) into market traders who learn how to make the rules work for them.
Toms plays the role just right. He’s canny, shrewd, even street-smart. When he does break under the psychological torture, his anguish is palpable, and we sit there, squirming in our discomfort. His captors may need him, but they remind him who’s in control.
Nick also finds himself a pawn in a power struggle between Bashir and the fatherly Imam Saleem (William Ontiveros), and agonizingly helpless before the closet capitalism of his other captor, Dar (Erwin Galan).
These are tough roles to play, since each must neogotiate that treacherous boundary of hostile captor/prisoner and enemy/friend (How can you continue to hate someone you come into daily contact with?) It’s not an easy psychological tightrope, but the four actors walk it carefully and skillfully.
The whole production works. Allen Nause’s direction is sharp and tight, knowing when to deliver the jokes and when to let the terror and anguish take center stage. Matthew Smucker’s simple set–a cell–conveys the right amount of austerity and grimness. Sound? Brendan Patrick Hogan gives us dogs barking, drones whirring–and the horror of gunshots and screams as an outside world implodes, and Rose Pederson’s costumes underline the shifting roles of the captors. All great work. But I found the lighting to be especially noteworthy, moody and cold, and subtle: the shadow of a barred window on the floor was all we needed to see.
Here, on the 13th anniversary of the 911 attacks, we are presented with the utter complexity of the misunderstandings, the fears, the exploitations and opportunism of both sides in the widening religious rift valleys in our modern world. Above all, it tells us about the dichotomy of money as the metaphor for power, that the more we acquire, the smaller we become.