IT'S NOT UNUSUAL to spend 90 minutes in a theater watching a kidnapped American abroad and his complex captors. What's surprising about The Invisible Hand, though, is that the venue isn't a Regal cinema, but the Morrison Stage at Artists Repertory Theatre.
Playwright Ayad Akhtar, who won a Pulitzer in 2013 for his play Disgraced, seems to want to toe the line between art and entertainment. The Invisible Hand's plot sounds suited to a Hollywood thriller: In the near future, an American finance worker, Nick Bright, is kidnapped by a militant resistance group in Pakistan, and forced to play the market to earn his ransom.
Connor Toms plays Bright at that point between smarm and charm that defines the American finance bro, but colored with the horror of the situation. One of the play's pleasures is watching Toms swing between the claustrophobic terror of captivity to the woozy high of market manipulation—when he makes money, you can almost see the power suit he thinks he's wearing. Unfortunately, the script's lame attempts to complicate Bright's politics—and thus the play's—feel wooden, even with Toms' chops.
Bright's captors make up the rest of the cast. Imran Sheikh plays Bashir, a prodigal son who's returned to Pakistan and the resistance after growing up in London. Bright gives Bashir a crash course in economics, and Bashir, both student and friend to his captive, sneaks in Archie comics and pomegranate juice. Sheikh and Toms' chemistry lends the play much of its dramatic complexity. They find common ground in the universal language, which, Bright says, is not just money, but US dollars. William Ontiveros plays Imam Saleem, the idealist leader of the resistance, who struggles to control both Bright and Bashir. Ontiveros is delightful, whether smiling ironically or shaking with rage. Then there's Dar (John San Nicolas), the muscle—loveable and innocent, but ready to carry out the worst of orders. San Nicolas makes more of Dar than the script calls for, even in scenes where he has almost no lines. And that's it—all men. Of the women even mentioned in the play, roughly half are characters in Archie comics. That's a symptom of a play that seems to care more about teaching the audience some basics of market manipulation than exploring the complexity of modern Islam or America's relationship with South Asia.
This unexamined ambivalence hobbles The Invisible Hand. US drone attacks are mentioned in the play, which serve not even as part of the plot but as atmosphere. In this, it's successful, as is the play's design work overall. It's a tight, compact, suspenseful work, but lazy in its politics. Expect to see Bradley Cooper as Nick Bright on the big screen in 2016.