Ayad Akhtar’s hostage drama ‘The Invisible Hand’ at Cleveland Play House: There will be blood, on all sides (review)

February 28, 2018 GMT

Ayad Akhtar’s hostage drama ‘The Invisible Hand’ at Cleveland Play House: There will be blood, on all sides (review)

CLEVELAND, Ohio – In “The Invisible Hand,” Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar seamlessly combines the world of high finance with a high-stakes hostage drama, a marriage that evokes an amusing elevator pitch: “Think ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ meets ’24′!”

But Akhtar’s play is smarter than that, a cerebral thriller that somehow makes scenes of men staring into laptops riveting and jokes about Lexis-Nexis a real riot. (We also get a quick tutorial on how to make money in the stock market by short-selling – betting that the value of a company’s stock will drop rather than rise, and cashing in when it does.)

Akhtar even manages to make an investment banker sympathetic. That’s Nick Bright (Max Woertendyke), a Citibank employee kidnapped while doing business in Pakistan.

We meet him in a spare, medieval-looking room getting his nails clipped by a low-level jailer named Dar (Nik Sadhnani). Nick is doing his best to connect, asking after Dar’s mother and following up on some investment advice he’s offered, in the hope it will make him harder to kill. Though Dar has a Kalashnikov slung over the back of his chair, he isn’t the one with the power.

Dar answers to Bashir (Louis Sallan, bristling with coiled threat), a British-born revolutionary – or terrorist, depending on your point of view – with a hair-trigger temper and an unwavering faith in Imam Saleem.

A former journalist and self-styled champion of the people, Saleem says he want to improve the lives of the oppressed locals.

“We are prisoners of a corrupt country of our own making,” Saleem admits, but a corruption aided and abetted by Western money men like Nick Bright.

“Don’t pretend you aren’t complicit,” says Saleem, played with dangerous charm by J. Paul Nicholas.

Nick was supposed to be their cash cow, only he isn’t. Bashir snatched him by mistake, the real target an American banker higher on the corporate food chain. Nick can’t command the kind of payday they were hoping for: 10 million U.S. dollars.

To make himself more valuable, Nick convinces Saleem to let him play the stock market to earn his own ransom and return to his wife and 3-year-old son.

The Cleveland Play House production is an exercise in increasing tension, like thumbscrews slowly tightening. Director Pirronne Yousefzadeh conducts a dissonant symphony of light and sound to ratchet up the dread.

Scenes end with an explosive abruptness, accompanied by a sort of sinister Sufi trance music by Daniel Perelstein, played jarringly loud.

(Perelstein’s soundscape for November’s “The Diary of Anne Frank,” also at the Outcalt Theatre, was similarly unsettling, freighted with the promise of approaching menace.)

Lighting by Michael Boll is penitentiary bright by day and crepuscular at night. As Nick tries to dig his way through a wall with that purloined nail clipper while his captors sleep, shafts of moonlight stab through the single, barred window of his cell, casting long shadows across the floor. It’s a bleak and beautiful image, a bit of visual poetry in a production appropriately filled with harsh sounds and angles.

The stage is configured like a shotgun shack, narrow and rectangular, with the audience seated on either side. (You could fire a bullet straight from the heavy chained door to the wall just above Nick’s mean cot.)

Because nothing is ever directed overtly toward us, it’s as though we are witnessing something secret, the walls of the prison cut away to reveal a life-and-death struggle we were never meant to see.

Bashir becomes Nick’s grudging assistant and student, helping him gather intelligence from newspapers and online sources to determine what companies are vulnerable based on the politics of the moment. Nick schools Bashir in the dos and don’ts of trading.

“Bulls make money. Bears make money. Pigs get slaughtered,” Nick explains.

″. . . Greed is what loses you money.”

(It also corrupts the seemingly incorruptible, an oldie but a goodie in terms of themes at work here.)

Bashir is a quick study: “If people have it in their interest for a stock to go down, can’t they just do stuff to make it go down?” he asks.

There are laws against that kind of manipulation, says Nick, which isn’t to say that when he worked at a hedge fund, people weren’t above sowing a rumor about a company to artificially goose a decline.

But the market will eventually catch on, he adds, because “it’s shaped by everyone’s self-interest, like an invisible hand moving it all along.”

As Nick is teaching Bashir, Bashir is educating Nick – about the guilt of Western companies and governments that prop up sadistic leaders who get rich shorting their own people.

Saleem says he’s spending Nick’s earnings to buy vaccines for children and an irrigation system for a failing orange grove, but when suspicious regulators start sniffing around the growing pot, Nick advises Saleem to launder it by buying real estate, a suggestion that sets off a cascade of violence.

Akhtar’s combustible “Disgraced” featured an American-born Muslim lawyer grappling with issues of identity and rage, and presented us with a brown protagonist we weren’t used to seeing on the American stage, much less rooting for. (The play won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2013.)

He does the same here, building a story around characters we think we know and are programmed to hate, then upending our expectations by offering us their complicating, human dimensions.

Did Nick engineer it so the worth of one kidnapper would decline, then capitalize on his tumble? Or was he innocently trying to protect the money – his only shot at freedom? Is Saleem an altruistic visionary or an opportunist? Is Bashir a true believer or a sadistic crook?

One thing is clear: Everyone in this 21st-century morality play has blood on his hands, capitalists and jihadists alike.


The Invisible Hand

What: The Cleveland Play House production of the play Ayad Akhtar. Directed by Pirronne Yousefzadeh.

When: Through Sunday, March 11.

Where: Outcalt Theatre, Playhouse Square, Cleveland.

Tickets: $25-$105; $15 student rush tickets. Go to clevelandplayhouse.com or call 216-241-6000.

Approximate running time: 2 hours, including one intermission.