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Review: THE INVISIBLE HAND at New Victoria Theater

Review: THE INVISIBLE HAND at New Victoria Theater
Jameal Ali, Mujahid Abdul-Rashid, Sarang Sharma and John Tufts in The Invisible Hand
Photo Credit: David Bazemore

Now playing at the New Victoria Theater, The Invisible Hand by Ayad Akhtar offers a riveting evening of dramatic storytelling directed by Jonathan Fox. We find one Nicholas Earnest Bright (John Tufts), an American financial analyst held captive by three Muslim men in Pakistan. They demand 10 million dollars for his release, but no one steps forward to pay the ransom. Fearing for his life, and missing his family in the states, Nick Bright offers to pay the terrorists off by applying his understanding of finance and trade for the pecuniary enrichment of his captors and their cause.

The play's title, of course, refers to the phrase coined all the way back during the Enlightenment by the Scottish father of Economics, Adam Smith. Forces of supply and demand, Smith theorized, settle the price of goods as though moved to their natural place by an invisible hand. Smith made the accumulation of wealth nothing of which one ought to be ashamed. When individuals operate in their self-interest, everyone benefits: greed is good. Akhtar's play pits the West's laissez-faire capitalism against the third pillar of Islam, Zakat, the duty to give alms to poor. The terrorists in this play believe that their humanitarian ends, that of improving the lot of Pakistan's needy, justify their brutal means.

The Invisible Hand evinces Ayad Akhtar's signature combination of philosophical examination with engrossing human action. The playwright's ability to dramatize lofty ideas earned him a Pulitzer Prize for his earlier play, Disgraced, the story of the rapid decline in fortunes of a self-loathing Muslim American man. (In Santa Barbara, The Producing Unit produced Disgraced at Center Stage with an all-equity cast of under the direction of Ivy Vahanian, who had played the role of Emily at the Arena Stage in D.C. and on tour in Asia; if you missed it in the fall, you missed out).

The play explores the limitations and internal contradictions of capitalism--the mystical "Market" worshipped with something like religious fervor by the West--and Islamic nationalism. Nick Bright is caught in a high-stakes game of monkey in the middle between these two forces and he is forced to trade in the market of human misery. It's a play in the tradition of George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House, except with terrorists. The more money that Bright makes for his captors to free himself, the more the bodies pile up. "Are his hands clean?" the play asks with escalating urgency and in different ways. Audiences will feel the stage time quickly fleeting as they wonder what will happen next.

Some thinkers have critiqued Akhtar's plays for leveraging his own first-hand familiarity with the Muslim-American experience into striking, but stereotypical depictions of Muslims that have just enough moral shading to relieve audiences of a sense of guilt in fearing them. This play does not prove these detractors wrong. Orientalist tropes abound in The Invisible Hand: it presents the West as intellectually stimulating, innovative, and modern against the savagery of the Orient, an imagined world that remains anterior to modernity.

To illustrate, the play's sonic texture contrasts the Western-identified electronic whir of a drone with the clamourous barking of feral dogs--a tidy metonymic representation of the Orientalist binary. The script describes the character of Bashir (Jameal Ali) in animal terms as "a human barracuda" while the white American, Nick, is endowed with the middle name "Earnest" and the surname "Bright." The plot conforms to the Orientalist meta-narrative: Western analyst Nick Bright teaches his Western theories of the market and his techniques to brutal, extremist Muslim male captors.

I would guess that Akhtar would counter this with an argument that he reveals the dirty hands of the West, its complicity in terror. Or he might point to the superior nobility shown when one of the Muslim characters, in the words of the great Euripides, "holds a dominating hand above the bent head of the enemy." However, the deeper structure of the play, not what is said in dialogue, but what is performed and embodied, the dramatic pulse to which the audience responds, essentializes the Muslim as a savage while the Westerner generates intellectual insight and innovation.

It's interesting to speculate on Akthar's own divided and double-consciousness as a Muslim in a family originally from Pakistan who grew up in the midwest and how identity is reflected in the play. Ayad Akhtar's last name, which means "star" in Persian, links to Nick's surname, "Bright." Bashir, the character who grew up in London, shares with Akhtar the experience of growing up as an immigrant Muslim Pakistani family. The play features imagery of these characters' doubling one another and probes their internal divisions. While Akhtar's earlier play, Disgraced, questioned Orientalist thinking and made its Muslim character's self-hatred a subject of the drama, The Invisible Hand seems to exemplify both self-loathing and Orientalism.

The Orientalist logic of the story extends to Ensemble Theatre's set (artfully designed by Charlie Corcoran). Romantically crumbling plaster walls climb vertically out of our sight. The space expands to the width of the stage horizontally, incongruously so in terms of the notion of confinement. Blue and white tile work decorates the floor; light pours down from an ogee-arched window in a filtered haze; it's a fantasy that may have been conjured by Jean-Léon Gérôme. Only the bars on the window remind us that we are looking at a jail and not at some abandoned mosque. These design choices encode the exoticism of the Orient into our thoughts as a pretty ruin, linking it to an imaginary space of an ancient time. There is longing in the otherness of the Orient.

As to the performances, actor John Tufts plays Nick Bright with consistent and complete presence; he is especially effective in his portrait of Bright's mental and physical decline over the tenure of his captivity. Jameal Ali as Bashir seemed to gather confidence in his role as the play went on, hitting his stride about a half hour on. Since the dramatic tension of the piece depends on the looming possibility of violence breaking out at any moment, the production has a special duty to make the physical combat rehearsed to the point of flawlessness. And even though there is room for improvement in this respect (I saw the play on opening night), this is a production to catch.

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