Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Visible Hand

The Invisible Hand -- Westport Country Playhouse -- Thru August 6

Rajesh Bose, Fajer Kaisi, Eric Bryant and Jameal Ali
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Power corrupts. Money is the root of all evil. “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Alas, these are all too familiar concepts, trite but true. Oh, yes, there’s another concept one might want to consider: for a play to work you have to care about what happens to the characters, and although Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand, which recently opened at the Westport Country Playhouse, certainly deals with the first three concepts, it doesn’t embrace the fourth. Thus, at least one member of the audience was left with a “So what?” feeling at the final curtain.

Set in modern day Pakistan and directed by David Kennedy, this exercise in the plight of an American banker being held hostage offers few dramatic moments and a lot of mini-scenes punctuated by blackouts that become tiresome, if for no other reason than they create the feeling that you are watching snippets of film rather than a play.

Upon entering the theater you are confronted by a blue wall jutting out at an odd angle. What, pray tell, might that be, or signify? Perhaps it has some metaphoric meaning, much as the black monolith does in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Maybe, but what it appears to represent is the fourth wall, i.e., a physical manifestation of the invisible wall that allows the audience to look into the parlor or hotel room or…well, wherever the action of the play is occurring. In this case, it disappears to reveal the room in the building where Citibank executive Nick Bright (Eric Bryant) is being held for ransom, a cool ten million dollars. Actually, his boss was the one who was supposed to be abducted, but Bashir (Fajer Kaisi) made a slight mistake so, well, when handed lemons make lemonade. Imam Saleem (Rajesh Bose) believes that Nick can, in one way or another, come up with the money that will free him. After all, Nick gave Dar (Jameal Ali), his guard, some profitable guidance on how to corner the local market on potatoes.

Yes, Nick represents the great Satan, America, and as a banker he is at the root of most of the world’s problems, initiated, as Akhtar would have it, by the Breton Woods system that made the American dollar king of currency. Yet greed is not bound by race, color or creed, for “Money makes the world go around, the world go around.” So, when Nick, charged with coming up with his ransom, starts to tutor Bashir on the intricacies of banking, stock trading, futures and currency manipulation, and the money starts rolling in, the serpent slides easily into paradise and everyone becomes tainted. So what else is new?

Akhtar has a lot to say about economics, geo-political realities and the uses and abuses of power, but in this case it probably would have been better if he had chosen to write an essay or an Op-Ed piece rather than a play, for then he wouldn’t have been tasked with the pesky necessity of creating engaging, flesh-and-blood characters that generate an emotional response from the audience, something he is perfectly capable of doing given the gripping nature of his Disgraced, which won a Pulitzer Prize and was boarded last season at Long Wharf Theatre.

The Invisible Hand is a problem play, and as such the characters deal with social issues and enter into contentious debates with each other. All well and good, but you never lose sight of the fact that the characters are puppets and that Akhtar is the puppet-master, the all but visible hand in The Invisible Hand.

The Invisible Hand runs through August 6. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to 

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