BWW Review: A Chilling Benjamin T. Ismail Haunts Ayad Akhtar's THE INVISIBLE HAND at American Stage
"See, everybody's self-interest works as a check against everyone else's. Shorts keep longs honest. Vice versa. It's what they call the invisible hand...The market is shaped by everyone else's self-interest, like an invisible hand moving it all along." --Nick in Ayad Akhtar's THE INVISIBLE HAND
Sometimes a performance of a not-so-nice character haunts me for days. John Huston as the morally corrupt Noah Cross in Chinatown gave me such a severe case of the willies that I still can't get over it (and it's been decades since I first saw the movie). In In the Name of the Father, Don Baker as an IRA killer was bone-chillingly memorable in his quiet intensity, and I've never seen him in anything since. John Carroll Lynch was perfect (and perfectly creepy) in his brief appearance as a probable serial killer in David Fincher's masterful Zodiac. And onstage, Benjamin T. Ismail as Bashir in THE INVISIBLE HAND at American Stage affected me in similar ways as those screen baddies, even though his role is more evenly-textured and layered. It's not some straight villainous Iago clone. But whenever he was onstage, I was mesmerized.
Ismail is known in our area more for his directing prowess than for his acting chops. I admired both of the local shows that he captained at American Stage, 4000 Miles and Informed Consent. But in Ayad Akhtar's powerful THE INVISIBLE HAND, Ismail's Bashir is what I will remember most from him. This is quite a rollercoaster of a role, with highs and lows, a man to be feared and yet at times fearful, always a puzzle. I like an actor who keeps us guessing, and Ismail, with a deep British accent, keeps us on our toes. It's sensationally entertaining and yet the performance is so intense that it, like those previous movie villains that I mentioned, makes us squirm and never lets us settle into our seats in comfort. It's easily one of the finest performances of the year.
The show itself is quite timely. In it, a wealthy American is held captive in Pakistan and must use his money-making skills to eventually win his freedom. Imagine Zero Dark Thirty mixed with The Big Short, and you have an idea of both the tone and the plot of THE INVISIBLE HAND. It takes awhile to get into--you know it's going somewhere, but the ride starts off slow as a traffic jam--but once it finds its bearings, it never lifts its foot off the pedal. Only at the very end did it seem a bit too pat for my tastes.
Ismail is obviously a standout as Bashir, one of the captors. As the American named Nick Bright (which sounds more like a name you would find in a DC comic, not in a deep play about terrorism and finance), Joe Ditmyer is steady and strong, and he gives a quality performance. But never is his work ever raised to the next level, where we feel as strongly for his plight as we do in recoiling from his captor's intensity. Don't get me wrong, Ditmyer delivers a very good performance; it just never threatens to become a great one.
Mujahid Abdul-Rashid, so good in Jitney last year, is solid in his quiet force as Imam Saleem, the head of the captors. There are moments in his work that are thrilling and scary, and a twist where he has to show his acting mojo in a different way (no "spoiler alerts" necessary; I will say no more). Shrey Neil, as Dar, low man on the captor totem pole, is effective even though he is sometimes hard to understand with the heavy accent, which may be purposeful.
Stephanie Gularte once again delivers the goods in her direction. The opening pace aside, it's a thrilling piece of work, guided by her not-so-invisible hand. Dan Granke's choreographed fight scenes are quite effective for the most part, and you feel at times like some of the cast members are in peril and once or twice actually hit (don't worry, they're really not; it's just illusion).
Steven Mitchell's set design is effective and captures what the script originally suggests: "A holding room. Spare. In disrepair. A table center stage. Two chairs. Along the far left wall, a small cot. And above it, a window near the ceiling. Covered in bars." However, the set is placed at such an angle that those sitting in the far House Left cannot see whatever is taking place at the back wall (including some key plot points). It's like watching The Shawshank Redemption but not being able to see the famous Rita Hayworth poster. Yes, imagination must work well here for the unfortunate audience members sitting House Left, but when the rest of the audience can see everything that's on the stage, it's not enough. Clearly this could have been improved, even with just a slight adjustment or two.
Karla Hartley's sound design is brilliantly unnerving, including the distant sound of dreaded drones and barking dogs. Chris Baldwin's lighting is quite effective and sets the mood just right. Jill Castle's costume are fine for the most part; however, Nick's ripped, whiter-than-white Mr. Clean shirt looks too bright for someone who has been held in captivity for so long. Perhaps the shirt should lose its color, or at least appear dirtied, after the first act. Otherwise we are left having to suspend too much disbelief.
The audience left the theatre in a daze after THE INVISIBLE HAND. It was a building tension that they were experiencing, and they needed a release. So they left American Stage and walked into the troubles of our real world--where terror attacks in Europe were the headlines. This is what all good art does--it makes us hold a mirror up to ourselves and to our world. And THE INVISIBLE HAND, especially with Benjamin T. Ismail's bravura turn, certainly does that with astonishing power.
THE INVISIBLE HAND plays at American Stage until June 25th. For tickets, please call (727) 823-PLAY.