Theater: Skillful suspense

Theater: Skillful suspense

‘The Invisible Hand’ a gripping drama

Actors in Marin Theatre Company’s ‘The Invisible Hand’ discuss religion and economics. Photo by Kevin Berne.

By Charles Brousse

Marin Theatre Company’s production of The Invisible Hand isn’t what the title of Ayad Akhtar’s latest play to make it to the Bay Area might lead you to believe it is. Sound like a murder mystery? It isn’t. Maybe a theatrical adaptation of a Stephen King novel or Edgar Allan Poe short story? No.

The reference is to the famous metaphor used by 18th century Scottish philosopher Adam Smith to describe his belief (simply stated) that individuals, each acting to further his or her own best interests, can together increase the welfare of the entire group—a concept that later became the bedrock of today’s free market capitalism—locally, nationally and even globally. It doesn’t require government intervention or oversight. It just happens. Magically.

That’s Econ 101, according to University of Chicago theorist Milton Friedman and his merry band of free marketers. It’s also part of an economic history lesson that occupies significant sections of Akhtar’s two-hour drama. Related subjects include detailed lessons in how the stock market works: Puts, calls, leveraging, credit default swaps and all those other wonderful machinations that hedge funds regularly engage in to profit their investors. All of this sounds fairly academic, and indeed it is, except that the classroom is a dismal, cell-like room somewhere deep in Pakistan and the instructor is a representative of Citibank who has been kidnapped and is now being held for ransom. His “students” are a band of dissident Pakistanis who (as they frequently threaten) are quite prepared to execute him if their monetary demands aren’t met.

The immediate problem faced by young Nick Bright (convincingly portrayed by Craig Marker), is that neither Washington nor his employers are willing to pay for his release, a policy based on the assumption that doing so would enable terrorists and encourage further kidnappings. Desperate to save his life and return to his wife and children, he offers them the $2 million he has stashed away in an unlisted Cayman Islands bank account. They counter with a demand for $20 million, then settle for $10 million, but even that sum is impossible for him to raise overnight. (At this point, I began wondering what Donald Trump, the self-styled champion deal-maker, would have done.) What Nick does is to close the deal, provided he can have access to a computer and a year to make it happen. Grudgingly, they agree, with the stipulation that they control the computer and his efforts result in a timely progress.

From then on, it’s a bit like Scheherazade in A Thousand and One Nights engaging the heartless Sultan with gripping stories in exchange for another day of life. Using his knowledge of how big traders operate, Nick plays the market and quickly begins to chip away at the agreed amount, sharing information about each move with Bashir (Pomme Koch), the moody, unpredictable  Pakistani who has been assigned to guard and work with him. While Bashir also can be pragmatic, his superior, Imam Saleem (Barzin Akhavan) is a far more difficult adversary. He sees the West, particularly the U.S., as having interfered in his country’s economic and political  life to a degree that no amount of money will overcome. Nick’s response to both is to engage them in lengthy and ultimately unproductive debate over America’s role in the world after the Bretton Woods conference established the dollar as the international exchange unit, and linked it with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

As is probably evident in this description, the didactic and dramatic sides of Akhtar’s play often overlap. Jasson Minadakis, MTC’s director, assisted by Chris Houston’s ominous sound wrap, wisely focuses on the threat of a violent ending, creating a level of suspense that, when  combined with the ensemble’s skill, is just enough to keep the play from bogging down in econometric details. Akhtar, already a Pulitzer Prize winner (for Disgraced, 2013), is a talented writer and I, for one, eagerly look forward to his future work.

NOW PLAYING: The Invisible Hand runs through July 3 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley; 415/388-5208; marintheatre.org.

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