Where: Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn Ave.
When: through Nov. 11
By ANNE SPISELMAN
The power of money to corrupt is at the core of Ayad Akhtar’s “The Invisible Hand,” which combines a taut geopolitical thriller with a crash course in manipulation of global financial markets. Neither facet quite comes to full fruition in Steep Theatre’s Chicago premiere of the Pulitzer Prize winner’s (for “Disgraced”) latest, but the production directed by Audrey Francis on the postage-stamp stage is generally well acted and thoroughly engaging.
When the play opens, Nick Bright (Joel Reitsma), an American banker in Pakistan, has been accidentally kidnapped instead of his Citibank boss by a militant organization led by Iman Saleem (Bassan Abdelfattah). He’s being guarded, fairly benignly at first, by Dar (Anand Bhatt), a young man who has benefited to the tune of $75 from Nick’s advice to stockpile potatoes and sell them when the price goes up, then convert the rupees to dollars as soon as possible.
Next Dar’s superior, Bashir (Owais Ahmed), arrives, and the atmosphere becomes tenser. A native of a London suburb, we later learn, he’s smart, angry, idealistic, and anti-American. They’re soon joined by the Imam, a former journalist whose father was killed because of one of his investigative stories. A calm, soft-spoken anthesis to Bashir, he seems dedicated to improving conditions for his people by providing medical supplies, fixing the roads, etc.
Ten million dollars ransom is being demanded for Nick’s release, but since the Imam has been declared a terrorist, the U.S. won’t negotiate. His captors threaten to turn him over to Lashkar, the violent Islamic terrorist organization involved in the infamous killing of journalist Daniel Pearl, but he convinces them he’s worth more to them alive than dead. He initially offers them the $3 million he has in an account in the Cayman Islands, and when they stand firm at $10 million, he says he thinks he can raise it given access to his account and the markets, a computer, and enough time. He’s given a year—and also told he can’t touch the computer but will have to teach Bashir how to trade instead.
Bashir is a first-rate student and quickly picks up the vocabulary of trading–”puts,” “options,” and all that—as well as concepts like how to make money by betting both for and against potential future stock prices. He also becomes intoxicated by all the money to be made, and a certain rapport develops between him and his mentor, even as they argue a lot. Ahmed brilliantly captures Bashir’s intelligence, dry sense of humor, and volatility, so these scenes transcend an economics lesson, even though Reitsma’s Nick, who all the while is trying to escape, tends to shout rather than conveying any real depth of character.
Meanwhile, trouble is brewing between Bashir and the Imam, and Nick is not above subtly pitting them against each other, especially when he learns that some proceeds earmarked for further trades have mysteriously disappeared. The Iman claims he needed the money for vaccines, but a surprisingly large amount is gone. And the spiritual leader who, earlier, ruefully told his captive, “We are prisoners of a corrupt country of our own making,” himself falls prey after he gets a letter about taxes, and Nick recommends he put the investments in liquid assets like real estate.
By this time, Bashir is having the Imam followed, and his reaction to discovering his leader’s failings his pretty predictable. What’s not a foregone conclusion is how fully he embraces his economic lessons, particularly about controlling the currency: He becomes a murderous monster in the name of making things better, a moral problem that’s playing out all over the world.
At Steep, it plays out in a grimy little cell designed by Ashley Ann Woods with harsh lighting by Meghan Erxleben and the occasional noise of drones in the background by sound designer/composer Thomas Dixon. The weaknesses of the set, for example the obvious nature of Nick’s escape hole, are very visible in such a small space, but it is generally effective, as are Rachel Sypniewski’s costumes, though I suspect Nick would have been given fresh clothes at least once considering how long he was imprisoned and what he was doing.
All in all, I expected “The Invisible Hand” to be more suspenseful, but the play is an intriguing study of both differences and similarities between East and West, as well as the power of money over individuals.