A Review of The Invisible Hand
Truthfully, the world of economics and global politics have yet to become a genuine interest in my so far short life. These subjects, for whatever reason, do not really piqued my curiosity in any sort of visceral or intellectual fashion, and could never be associated with my all-too-common response when people beg the question “What do you do?”
“Oh, just doing my thang.”
So, information regarding the monetary reality of modern humanity on a large scale, world-wide level and all the nuances of history and current events that become associated with that just isn’t “my thang.“ How young and dumb of me is that? I suppose I rather indulge my curiosities in the more trivial of matters on this planet, like bands that put penises on their album covers, (like my Death Grips review). Or where the closest and cheapest Chinese food buffet is to me.
I am not really the most informed person to be reviewing The Invisible Hand, the new, politically-charged play written by the Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright, Ayad Akhtar, and presented by the Artists Repertory Theater here in Downtown Portland, running through April 6th. It is an unsettling and mildly satirical production that explores the well-known economic concept of “the invisible hand” in both a political and humanistic method. For those, like myself, who are unaware of the term, thankfully, the concept is clearly defined in the play as one of the main characters explains, “The free market is guided by the confluence and conflict of everyone’s self-interest, like an invisible hand moving the market.”
Basically, it is the the individual’s deeply-embedded selfishness that is the omnipresent force creating demand for everything in global markets, contrarily driving our society at large to a bigger success (in the POV of capitalism, of course. Some monks may disagree). And all the dramatically rich and moral greyness, conflicts, and large-scale decisions that this invisible hand creates and/or directly influences between individuals, countries, and cultures is exactly what this play is about. No matter who you are, it seems a rather seductive and fatal addiction when one starts requiring that delicious green paper.
Seem like a total bummer of a play? Because it is not, completely that. The Invisible Hand is a refreshingly funny and humane tale, with two very empathetic and skillful performances by actors Connor Toms and Imran Sheikh, whose characters’ relationship propel the emotional narrative forward.
Set in near-future Pakistan, The Invisible Hand begins in a dreary and bare holding cell, where a prominent American stockbroker named Nick Bright, played with gusto by Connor Toms, is being held captive by Islamist militants (Taliban), mainly Iman Saleem, played by William Ontiveros, and Nick’s assigned captor Bashir, portrayed by Imran Sheik. They have have wrongly kidnapped him, aiming for his more powerful boss, yet continue to push a 10 million dollar ransom on Nick’s freedom and life. Nick is a smart fellow and is aware of his real world value; the requested 10 million dollars is an amount that virtually guarantees his death.
So, by utilizing that special American quality of confidence-blurred-with-arrogance contrasting against men raised in an Eastern culture, he manages to bargain for his freedom by insisting he can earn the $10 million through his well-refined skill at manipulating the global economy market (one of the characters’ many revelations that raises questions of his own personal ethics). His captors agree (a bit unrealistically), and The Invisible Hand becomes what it is: a story that is not really as suspenseful as one might imagine, but more of a seething political drama determined to encapsulate and educate on the current pulse of the global reality of economics and international relations between East and West.
As the play furthers and Nick and Bashir’s relationship curiously but tenderly deepens more as an unlikely team working together rather than a prisoner and captive dynamic, the overall moral ambiguities of these culturally defined characters and their respective decisions and ideologies only heighten. By the time the play ends, one can quickly see there is no clear-cut good or bad guy in this deeply complicated world of international economics.
The Invisible Hand is a consistently funny production, and this is mainly due to the necessary accomplishment of the play’s creative team for establishing a dynamic chemistry between Nick and Bashir that is both humane and intriguing. It is their slowly revealed contradictions as individuals, and their understandable conflict and eventual companionship as a duo that enables someone like myself, a person that did not retain virtually anything in any Economics class, to be able to sit, watch, and most importantly, become absorbed by these two characters in one room talk about international finance and politics for the majority of the 2-Act play.
The supporting characters are not as memorable however. The character of Dar (played to no fault by John San Nicolas) seems to just exist for the mere purpose of exposition, and/or a vessel that the other characters can use when a second body is necessary. The other man, Imam Saleem is actually a very thematically intriguing character, and in relation to the plot, quite an important one, but unfortunately the potential this carries on paper does not feel fully realized on the stage. Though there are a few memorable moments, what seemed like a character written to demand attention and steal scenes, felt a bit flat and lacked any lasting power or vigor, for reasons I cannot accurately pinpoint either.
There are other minor annoyances I have with The Invisible Hand. It is a bit unbelievable in aspects regarding Nick Bright’s kidnapping and the emotional weight that would expectantly follow. Allusions to his life outside of this bare room are made, like mentions of a wife and kid, but he does not really seem burdened by any emotional turmoil and concern for them with the exception of a couple of moments. But even those never seem important outside of when they are happening. Also, for being held captive by Islamic militants, his clothes seem strikingly clean and fresh, and his hair is nicely maintained throughout it all. These might seem like unnecessary details, but if their goal was to create an environment for Nick to have a powerful incentive to escape, that does not really come across. Furthermore, the ending was abrupt and there is a specific plot development that at first glance appears exciting and creates a captivating cliffhanger for the first half, but that cliffhanger is literally dissolved in seconds by the opening of the second half, which made me question why it was even there to begin with.
But enough with the petty complaints. Overall, The Invisible Hand is a success, and achieves what it sets out to do, which I think is creating an engrossing, morally conflicted and educational tale of hyper-relevant topics. I think the playwright has a genuine desire and passion to elevate the overall consciousness of these ideas, and it would not surprise me if he was an artist who really ascribed to the idea that “art should instruct.” A good portion of this play’s dialogue sometimes feels like it is coming straight from a college professor, but it’s written with enough imagination and empathy for its characters to elevate it from a potentially dry and tedious experience.
Acktar also nails how morally grey these matters are. No one in this tale is completely right or wrong, and even our main American character, Nick, reveals some unflattering ideals. At one point, strikingly enough, Nick seems more inclined to work and earn money than he does of his original intention to be free, which is a dark and dramatically clever implication of the consequences of the Western ideal. The play also succeeds in creating a near-future that is both ominous and realistic. At one point, Nick notices the sound of American Fighting Drones in the distance, and listens with a sort of sick detachment and amusement like he’s watching some action movie like The Terminator. It is Bashir that has to remind him of the other sound he is not hearing: the explosions that these Drones are wreaking on Bashir’s home.
The Invisible Hand is an engrossing tale of global money, clashing cultures, and if international politics are a genuine interest, you will probably get more out of it than I did. Regardless of my own preferences, it was an enjoyable, funny, informative, and disconcerting experience. It affected me and that’s really all you can ask for.