THEATER REVIEW: “The Invisible Hand” @ Cleveland Play House by Laura Kennelly

Photo by Roger Mastroianni

Through Sun 3/11

Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand, now playing in the snug Outcalt Theatre, shows what happens when “follow the money” clashes with “by their fruits ye shall know them.” Director Pirronne Yousefzadeh has crafted a tense and to-the-point version of Akhtar’s 2012 thriller that exposes the stock market as a place of risk, physical danger and possible redemption.

The title suggests Adam Smith’s 18th-century classic, The Wealth of Nations. In it, Smith defines “the invisible hand” as the forces that operate a free market, forces which will eventually create plenty for all even though all work for their own interest.

An action thriller tied to an academic economic theory may seem an awkward combination, but it works thrillingly well. The story begins when visiting American futures market expert Nick Bright (Max Woertendyke) is kidnapped in Pakistan by a small  terrorist group. Their leader Iman Saleem (a stately J. Paul Nicholas) claims completely idealistic goals (for example, getting immunizations for community children).

When the kidnappers (led by Bashir, played by Louis Sallan) discover they have mistakenly seized not the millionaire boss they hoped to hold hostage for a huge ransom, but Bright, his relatively poorer employee, they prepare to execute their captive as a worthless liability. A desperate Bright persuades them he’s more useful to them alive than dead, that if they follow his instructions, they can earn millions via stock manipulations from the relatively modest amount Bright can amass for ransom.

Although learning how the stock market works might seem dull, it’s not — at least in this play. If you can follow along as Bright teaches them, you will learn all about “calls” and “puts” (or maybe at least be engaged enough to research them further). Amazing, right? Economics can be fascinating.

There’s plenty of human drama too as Bright’s captivity continues through the months. We see his physical and mental deterioration, as he struggles to hold on to hope even though he lives in chains. And he’s not the only one with challenges. Once the money begins to roll in, his captors’ idealistic goals are also severely tested.

In a fine performance, Woertendyke (as the distraught Bright) shows how the most academic        subject can be fascinating in the hands of an excellent teacher. Sallan’s violent yet charismatic Bashir effectively swerves between unremitting scorn for his captive and respect for new ideas. He’s a quick study. It is their battle that draws the most attention, but they are ably supported by the rest of the cast which includes Nik Sadhnani as Dar, Bashir’s right-hand man.

The stark set, designed by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams, and jarring (sometimes) sound effects created by Daniel Perelstein, join with lighting by Michael Boll and costumes by Valerie Therese Bart to make Bright’s confinement, fear, and despair seem real.

BOTTOM LINE: Utterly engrossing, dramatic, thrilling, even though I missed the first ten minutes. [Note to self for the future: Tuesday shows at CPH begin at 7pm and not, like their other evening shows, at 7:30pm]


[Written by Laura Kennelly]


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