Ayad Akhtar

Follow the Money

Review of The Invisible Hand, Westport Country Playhouse

An American banker held hostage by Muslim militants in Pakistan for $5 million in ransom becomes the fulcrum for Ayad Akhtar’s canny look at the clash of values in the modern world. On the one hand, the ubiquitous materialism of international finance capital; on the other hand, the political aspirations of insurgents and terrorists; and, “on the invisible hand,” so to speak, the uncertain value of what we think of as humanism, or perhaps “cultural capital”—the ability to claim kinship, even with our enemies, on the basis of common humanity. This tense and thoughtfully fraught play is a triumph of careful staging and interesting plot twists.

For economist Adam Smith, “the invisible hand” was the guiding force that, even in a conflict of interests, would maintain the world system against chaos. Everyone wants a piece of the pie and will have to take part in the system to achieve any material goals, thus acting toward the good of the system. Akhtar's The Invisible Hand demonstrates not only the human costs that the good of the system may entail, but also the tension between the individual and the collective and the problem of administering between the two, at the local level.

Imam Saleem (Rajesh Bose), Nick Bright (Eric Bryant), Bashir (Fajer Kaisi) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Imam Saleem (Rajesh Bose), Nick Bright (Eric Bryant), Bashir (Fajer Kaisi) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Nick Bright (Eric Bryant) cleverly makes a virtue of necessity when he decides to help his captors raise money by playing on futures in the international marketplace to buy his freedom, once it’s clear that no one will pay his ransom (there won’t be any negotiation after his captors have been designated as terrorists). Nick’s naked self-interest supports his reasons for giving a lesson—to a terrorist cell—in how to work the market strategically. Whatever his aid might mean to him or his country or the global market, the conflict between Nick’s values and his captors’ becomes explicit when Imam Saleem (Rajesh Bose) questions Nick about his beliefs. The point the Imam insists on is that money isn’t everything; it’s merely a means to bargain and negotiate. For Nick, money is simply the basic fact of life. But the wrong reasoning could cost him his.

In any conflict between the West’s capitalist system and Islam, there is a question of values at stake. Akhtar’s play becomes a crucible—quite gripping in its deft intelligence—for how monetary worth can both achieve goals and undermine value. Refreshingly, the play is for the most part free of ideological cant. There are moments when Bashir (Fajer Kaisi), the England-born jailer assigned to oversee Nick’s efforts and aid him as best he can, denigrates the U.S. for its power and indifference, as the Imam does for its “fat people,” but there are also moments when Nick sticks up for the U.S. as the lesser of the other evils—Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Red China—that, rather than the U.S., might have played international banker and power-broker since World War II.

The positions of the characters are always clear and their give-and-take, under David Kennedy’s very capable direction, feels immediate and created by the situation. That’s important, because a fair amount of the dialogue, in the middle of Act One, entails Nick trying to get Bashir to understand his economic strategies. So we too get a crash course in how to make the most of market volatility.

Thankfully, results help ease Bashir’s doubts about Nick’s intentions, but further tension comes into play when the Imam sees no reason not to use some of the capital for things his people need—like vaccines—while to Nick the only purpose of the capital is to increase it until he makes the agreed-on sum. The humor in the play comes from the fact that, to a certain extent, money makes stooges us of all, and to laugh at the captors dickering with their prisoner on how to increase their portfolio is very much to the play’s point. The big goals—survival or freedom—become collateral prizes of the big prize: the stockpiling of capital, to let money make money.

Imam Saleem (Rajesh Bose), Bashir (Fajer Kaisi), Nick Bright (Eric Bryant), Dar (Jameal Ali) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Imam Saleem (Rajesh Bose), Bashir (Fajer Kaisi), Nick Bright (Eric Bryant), Dar (Jameal Ali) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Along the way, the captors are humanized as we would expect: Dar (Jameal Ali), the low-level guard, puts us at ease early when we see how simpatico he and Nick have become, later we see how, in this system, his only identity is as a tool of power; Bashir, who is louder, scarier and more changeable, becomes a figure for the power of money to sway, and even to soften—up to a point; Imam Saleem, a former journalist who has become an Islamic leader, seems, at first, wisely detached, but he may insist on a system of value that puts Bashir and Nick’s work in jeopardy. Later, when Nick’s advice begins to lay bare the different goals and viewpoints of Bashir and Saleem, the play achieves a new configuration that demonstrates, in Act Two, how the exercise of power—generally called politics—can be dirtier and more dehumanizing than simple greed.

The cast is uniformly effective in adhering to the rigors of Akhtar’s script. As with his Pulitzer-prize-winning four-person play Disgraced (recently in a wonderfully tight production at Long Wharf Theatre with Bose in the main role), Akhtar keeps the interplay of the four characters our main focus. Here, Nick, like the put-upon Muslim-American lawyer in Disgraced, is a central figure whose know-how becomes a catalyst to entanglements he’d rather avoid, and Bryant is wonderfully vivid as a civilian prisoner trying hard not to become a political sacrifice. In Act Two his increasing befuddlement and desperation are dramatically realized. Bose registers the Imam’s decency and his fatuousness with deft aplomb; Ali’s Dar is generally glum or distraught, after his initial ill-advised enthusiasm; and Kaisi’s sense of nuance makes Bashir increasingly the focal point: we may be watching the growth of a true terrorist leader out of a lackadaisical globalized Everyman.

Adam Rigg’s scenic design deserves mention for its important credibility; we need to feel the oppression of the prison cell, a feeling aided by Matthew Richards’ lighting design and Fitz Patton’s sound design with its rumble of U.S. drone flights and distant explosions. The War on Terrorism, which Pakistan abetted, is a costly venture, both in dollars and in damage, and The Invisible Hand reminds us that, when it comes to covert strategies, much remains “invisible.”

 

The Invisible Hand
By Ayad Akhtar
Directed by David Kennedy

Scenic Design: Adam Rigg; Costume Design: Emily Rebholz; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Fitz Patton; Dialect Coach: Lous Colaianni; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Props Master: Karin White; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith

Cast: Jameal Ali; Rajesh Bose; Eric Bryant; Fajer Kaisi

Westport Country Playhouse
July 19-August 6, 2016

Guilt by Association

Review of Disgraced at Long Wharf Theatre

In the U.S., everyone’s people came from somewhere else. Somewhere back there, whether recently or many generations ago, there lies a place where outsiders were treated as “others”: a “they” who don’t dress, eat, speak, worship, or behave as “we” do. In the U.S., for some, strong identification continues with those in the “old country”; some even bring to this country many of the same customs and they flourish here, putting down “hyphenated American” roots, and celebrating an identity that isn’t simply, generically, “American.” For others, their background is an embarrassment or an association they have tried hard to leave behind, in an effort to “americanize” and assimilate. Sometimes, the civil nature of our generalized American identity suffers major shocks from what most Americans consider “them” “out there”: those other countries and cultures some of us still identify with and that are still an “us.” Then look out.

Ayad Akhtar’s sharply written Disgraced, now playing at the Long Wharf Theatre, directed with great sureness of pacing and staging by Gordon Edelstein, very cunningly makes contentious drama out of the inevitable, American clash between “us” and “them.” Here, the clash isn’t on a battlefield; it occurs in that staple of American drama, the living room, and it’s amongst people who work together, are very articulate and quick-witted, and generally capable of putting differences aside for the sake of a convivial evening. Before we get to that Götterdammerung of a dinner party, there is an important prelude.

Rajesh Bose (Amir), Nicole Lawrence (Emily)

Rajesh Bose (Amir), Nicole Lawrence (Emily)

We meet successful New York lawyer Amir (Rajesh Bose) and his wife Emily (Nicole Lawrence), a visual artist, as she sketches him standing in an expensive shirt and jacket and his skivvies in their swanky apartment. She’s been inspired to do his portrait in the manner of Velasquez’s portrait of his assistant, a former slave. That should raise eyebrows right there, but the possible domestic issues in that comparison are smoothed over by the couple’s obvious chemistry. She’s doing it, you see, because Amir was “profiled” in a certain way at a restaurant and impressed her with how he handled it. The doorbell rings and before you can say “Allah,” Amir is being profiled by his nephew, Abe (Mohit Gautam)—formerly Hussein—as someone who should help an imam, imprisoned for allegedly raising funds for the Taliban, because they are both Muslim.

And here’s where Amir—who changed his name to Kapoor (it was Abdullah) and makes the most of the fact that his father was born in India before that region became Pakistan—tries to disavow his background while his wife, who has commenced a series of paintings based on the art of Islam, tries to assert, with the secular detachment of intellectuals, that he should value Islam as she does, as a culture that, like Greece and Rome, can be added to the grab-bag of Western influences. Amir sees it differently, but ultimately, in the interest of family ties or domestic tranquility, does attend the imam’s hearing, though not as counsel. Still, he is quoted in support of the imam in the New York Times, no doubt because he alone, of the battery of attorneys present, “looks like” the imam. His support thus quoted, Amir fears, might raise hackles with the Jewish partners of the firm where he has worked for twenty years and hopes to make partner.

All this is played out with the natural rhythm of a give-and-take where all that seems to be at issue is the right to say “no.” As audience, we tend to sympathize with the put-upon and profiled Amir, and that identification will be tested by what follows.

Mohit Gautam (Abe/Hussein), Nicole Lawrence (Emily), Rajesh Bose (Amir)

Mohit Gautam (Abe/Hussein), Nicole Lawrence (Emily), Rajesh Bose (Amir)

Without going into plot points and revelations that come about during a dinner that almost comes to blows on an evening that ends in violence, it is clear that Amir’s conviction that he is not one of “them”—a Muslim, much less an anti-American terrorist or “Islamo-fascist”—becomes harder to sustain in the light of his attempt to protest to his wife and guests—Jory (Shirine Babb), a colleague at the firm, and her husband Isaac (Benim Foster), a curator at the Whitney Museum who has taken on Emily’s work—that the Koran and its teachings are inimical to the cultural smorgasbord they believe in. What begins, on Amir’s part, as an effort to disabuse their naïveté with a hectoring lecture becomes a calling-out, particularly when author Akhtar piles up the indiginities Amir must suffer, coming from both workplace and home (Bose’s balanced performance makes Amir not always likeable but at least understandable).

While some of the blows to Amir’s sense of worth seem, in retrospect, a bit contrived, it’s important to stress how effectively it all works in the moment. And that’s because plot developments come to light though characters playing their respective hands with perfectly structured timing, and because reactions are quick and definite. The play might feel talky but rarely does; instead, it feels like we’re spectators of a verbal sporting event that suddenly gets far too personal. Sooner or later, you’re going to take sides.

Shirine Babbs (Jory), Rajesh Bose (Amir), Nicole Lawrence (Emily), Benim Foster (Isaac)

Shirine Babbs (Jory), Rajesh Bose (Amir), Nicole Lawrence (Emily), Benim Foster (Isaac)

The cast is uniformly excellent in carrying off Akhtar’s dialogue, with its very sharp transitions from friendly chatter to spousal joshing to personal slurs with a great feel for how to make clear the stakes and to keep it entertaining. Disgraced joins other recent top-notch Long Wharf productions of successful plays—Clybourne Park, Bad Jews—that specialize in uncomfortable confrontations that can arise when people, here with the aid of much alcohol, begin to say what they really think, or try to make distinctions or demand agreement on ethical or ethnic grounds. Akhtar’s play gets at the underside of America’s lip-service to accepting everyone and at the particular tensions that might surface in mixed race gatherings (Isaac is Jewish; Jory, black; Emily, white and blonde) whenever an issue raises its ugly head.

With its handsome set and costumes and its rigorous grasp of how to use every minute of its under 90-minute running time, Disgraced is a gripping night of theater that has much on its mind. Ultimately the play is about how one decides which “us” to remain true to. To be an American is to be a mutt, and the world is dog eat dog.

Shirine Babb (Jory), Benim Foster (Isaac), Nicole Lawrence (Emily), Rajesh Bose (Amir)

Shirine Babb (Jory), Benim Foster (Isaac), Nicole Lawrence (Emily), Rajesh Bose (Amir)


Disgraced
By Ayad Akhtar
Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Set Design: Lee Savage; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design: Eric Southern; Sound Design: David Van Tieghem; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Hair & Wig Design: Charles LePointe; Production Stage Manager: Jeff Brancato; Assistant Stage Managers: Amy Patricia Stern, Michelle Tuite; Casting by Calleri Casting; Photographs: T. Charles Erickson

Cast: Rajesh Bose; Nicole Lawrence; Mohit Gautam; Benim Foster; Shirine Babb

Long Wharf Theatre
October 14-November 8, 2015