THEATER REVIEW: “The Invisible Hand” at the Cleveland Play House by Roy Berko

Photo by Roger Mastroianni

Through Sun 3/11

Several years ago, when I saw the Broadway production of Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize winning Disgraced, I was totally impressed by the creative plot, the quality writing and how relevant the subject matter was of modern-day issues surrounding Islam. When I returned home I sent messages to several local theatres encouraging them to produce the play when it became available for staging.

The Cleveland Play House didn’t grant me my wish, but it is staging Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand, an equally unnerving and compelling script.

Akhtar is the son of Pakistani immigrants. He was brought up in the 1980s in suburban Milwaukee, as one of the only Muslim families in the area. The award-winning playwright has been compared to Shaw, Brecht and Miller for his ability to write compelling dialogue and attack contemporary issues.

The Invisible Hand centers on American futures trader Nick Bright, who has been captured in Pakistan when local terrorists mistake him for his boss whom the captors think would be worth up to ten million dollars. Nick, in order to secure his release, offers to teach Bashir, his captor, and his imam, who supposedly are trying to affect positive change for the local citizens and to manipulate the futures market in order to raise money. As the tension increases, questions of position, loyalty and honesty emerge, finally culminating in a dramatic conclusion.

The play, which probes the philosophy of capitalism, Islamic fanaticism and the greed of those who purport to be at the “honor” end of the ideological spectrum, opened to widely positive reviews in all of its productions. The title centers on the economic theory that “He who controls the currency controls the “power;” thus, the unknown controller is the “invisible hand.”

The Cleveland Play House production is blessed with an outstanding cast. Max Woertendyke is totally believable as Max, the American captive. His actions and reactions help create an air of realism which leads to strong empathy. We emotionally cheer for him to be released safely and not become a television image of yet another beheaded captor.

Louis Sallan portrays the role of Bashir with the right level of emotional on-the-edge terrorist, but his English accent is so heavy that he is often difficult to understand. Paul Nicholas, an Osama Bin Laden look-alike, captures the right edge as Imam Saleem. Nik Sadhnani is effective as Dar, a guard.

Director Pirronne Yousefzadeh creatively develops the tension and perfectly paces the action, building the tension. That anxiety is strongly accented by sound designer Daniel Perelstein’s intense sound and music, which, between each scene, jars the audience into the feeling of being captured behind slamming, confining jail doors.

One must wonder why Yousefzadeh and scenic designer Mikiko Suzuki Macadams decided to set the play in a runway configuration, with the audience on both sides of the stage. Yes, being close to the action intensifies the audience’s emotional involvement, but the long set made the cell appear to be huge, rather than the needed feeling of insufferable confinement. In addition, the large space creates echoes, which blunts the sharpness of the speech and causes periods of dialogue lapses.   Also, being able to see people reacting in the opposite audience was distracting, often breaking the mood.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: In spite of some technical issues, The Invisible Hand is an unnerving and compelling production at CPH. The tale of how the economy works and can be manipulated, as well as placing the spotlight on Islamic terrorism, makes this a vital contemporary play. The cast is outstanding and the pace and tone are tension-inducing. This is a production which is required seeing by anyone interested in fine acting and the reality of the world around us.

The Invisible Hand runs through Sun 3/11 at the Outcalt Theatre in PlayhouseSquare. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to clevelandplayhouse.com.

[Written by Roy Berko, member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle]

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