Anyone who wanted to see the wolves of Wall Street behind bars after 2008 will take a certain relish in Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand. Set in Pakistan in a not too distant future, it throws a cocksure CitiBank exec into the hands of jihadists who won’t shrug at beheading him, putting a lot more than his profit margins on the chopping block. Besides offering the cruel pleasure of seeing a high-flying trader brought to his knees, this tightly wound play, by the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Disgraced (now on Broadway), jumps back into the East/West fracture he examined there, where ethnicity, nationalisms, religion and money collide.
Reaching again into those fault lines, Akhtar comes up with a trio of opposing types, some of whom he’s dissected before in different variations. There’s Nick, that WASP exec, given to defending American foreign policy while lining the pockets of Pakistani businessmen, and lent a cool intensity by Justin Kirk. Among his captors, there are different variations of clichéd Muslim identities, from Saleem, a corrupt imam (Darlush Kashani) to Bashir, the cleric’s London-raised henchman with a ferocious Cockney accent. While the three circle each other uneasily, beset by unseen rival groups and American drones, it is Usman Ally’s angry, eye-rolling Bashir – an unpredictable predator caught between the opposing worlds that Nick and Saleem embody – who holds the play’s tension.
The action revolves however around the most “valuable” one of them all: the kidnapped American. To save himself against the unlikely odds that friends and family will pull together his exorbitant $10 million ransom, the brilliant, Princeton-educated Nick proposes a deal: he’ll raise the money himself doing what he does best – futures trading – effectively putting Wall Street to work for terrorists. By way of a clever though not so improbable premise, Akhtar gives a human scale and spin to Western financing of terrorist groups.
The situation isn’t as shocking as it might seem, however. For one, Nick is trading for his life; is any price too high for him to be able to return to his wife and son who send videos pleading for his release? For another, Nick and Bashir, who acts as Nick’s assistant in the futures game, prove to be opposite faces of the same coin, as they chat over tea before checking back on the status of their trades. Finally, the imam purports on every occasion to be helping the children and sick with education, medicines and protection against the Taliban. No one has blood on their hands until, suddenly and inevitably, they all do.
The Invisible Hand makes an ironic reference to the 18th century moral philosopher Adam Smith’s metaphor for how the profiteering behaviors of individual investors can actually benefit society. From the confines of the jihadists’ bunker however, it’s hard to see how the competing interests of Nick’s survival, Saleem’s greed and Bashir’s ambition, as played out in the marketplace, will contribute to any greater good, no matter how much they might delude themselves into believing the contrary.
While not entirely convincing, Akhtar’s premise builds a strong argument for re-examining capitalism’s social worth in this petri dish of opposing strains of the question. Notwithstanding strong performances and Ken Rus Schmoll’s taut direction, if The Invisible Hand demonstrates anything convincingly, it’s that Akhtar is an astute playwright of the post-911 landscape, where terrorists and big money are no longer strange bedfellows and every hand has strings attached.