When Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced played the Arts Club's Stanley Theatre last fall, I was nonplussed by the production and frankly perplexed as to all the critical kudos trailing the play--which seemed to me over-plotted and rife with cliches about Muslim-American men (you can read my review here). Now comes Pi Theatre's Canadian premiere of Aktar's follow-up drama, The Invisible Hand, which is on at The Cultch's Historic Theatre through April 23rd. I still think Akhtar has a problem with endings, with this one thrown at us like an abrupt cliff edge as opposed to Disgraced's overly tidy circularity. Nevertheless, I felt more invested in both the characters and the issues being explored in this play, which in its probing of the links between global finance and global terrorism and its distilling of the history and economics of a western country's involvement in a so-called "failed" Muslim state registered to me as Akhtar's theatrical attempt to do for Pakistan what Tony Kushner tried to take on with respect to Afghanistan in Homebody/Kabul. Then, again, maybe it's just that Akhtar is better at suspense than domestic melodrama.
The play opens with a quiet tableau whose visual juxtapositions are rife with meaning: a machine gun-toting Dar (played by Conor Wylie, who also appeared in the Arts Club production of Disgraced) is standing over a seated and handcuffed Nick (Craig Erickson, who is on stage for the entire length of the play). Dar holds Nick's raised hands in his, and at first it appears that the two might be praying together; instead the captor is merely cutting his prisoner's fingernails, which along with Erickson's growth of beard neatly telegraphs for the audience that Nick has been held for some time. Soon the two men fall into a stilted conversation, with Nick asking after Dar's mother; things get more animated, however, when Dar thanks Nick for some previous financial advice, which apparently allowed Dar to make a tidy profit on some stockpiled potatoes. However, the connection between the two men is sundered by the entrance of Bashir (Muish Sharma), who knows about Dar's transaction and is not happy about it, beating the younger and physically smaller man and accusing Nick of corrupting him with visions of the almighty American dollar.
For Nick, it turns out, is a futures trader at Citibank; he is being held prisoner after a bungled kidnapping (they were supposed to get Nick's boss). The $10 million ransom being demanded for his release has not yet been paid because, as Bashir explains, the leader of their organization, Imam Saleem (Shaker Paleja) has just been labeled a terrorist. But as Saleem puts it to Nick when he finally appears, he is not motivated by the religious extremism of either the Taliban or the even more militant Lashkar-e-Jhangvi organization (the ones responsible for the execution of journalist Daniel Pearl). Instead, he is on a crusade to rid Pakistan of corruption, in part by circumventing the normal channels of government aid and finding a way to give money directly to those in his community most in need. This is where the play gets interesting. Recognizing that his captors no longer see him as an asset, Nick proposes to Saleem and Bashir that he be allowed to use his skills as a trader to raise the ransom himself, parlaying an initial input of capital from his personal offshore Cayman Island accounts into a stock portfolio that would see all profits going to the Imam in exchange for Nick's eventual release. Soon enough Bashir is seated behind a computer, with Nick advising him about "puts" and "options" and, above all, the sublime beauty of the short sell.
In these core scenes between Nick and Bashir, Akhtar certainly indulges in his obvious knowledge of economics. Nick, for example, schools Bashir in the intricacies of the Bretton-Woods agreement (upon which he wrote his senior Princeton thesis), which put in place the first global monetary system post-WW II by tying the currencies of independent nation-states to a gold standard backed by a fixed exchange rate of American dollars. Curiously, however, Akhtar leaves unstated the other part of the contemporary global financial equation, namely when Richard Nixon took the US dollar off the gold standard in 1971, an event that has allowed the US Federal Reserve to respond to perceived financial crises at home as it sees fit (by, for example, raising or lowering interest rates, or printing more money). However, Nixon's move also paved the way for unscrupulous traders on Wall Street to short investors on Main Street (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, anyone?), as well as to take advantage of unstable situations abroad by buying up worthless stocks and properties and converting everything into American dollars--what has come to be known (after Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine and other texts) as "disaster capitalism." We see precisely this intersection of the "free market" and political crisis play out when, having been tipped off that the Minister of the Interior will be the target of violence, Nick has Bashir buy up various water-related stocks and then sell them as the price begins to fall. In these scenes, which sometimes become a little talky, Sharma and Erickson display an easy chemistry mixed with the heady intoxication of profit, like they are old bros bonding over a bet they have just won--in this case one worth $700,000.
Things take a twist in the second act when, having attempted a bold escape, Nick is now tied to a ball and chain, albeit in far posher digs (the wonderful set is by David Roberts, who almost does as good a job here as Drew Facey, who designed Pi's Jessie Award-winning production of Blasted last season). He and Bashir are still working together and still reeling in the profits, with Bashir now a seasoned trader savvy to the ups and downs of the market. Indeed, having been alerted by Nick at the end of the first act about Saleem's suspicious personal withdrawals from their accounts, Bashir appears to be putting in place a set of contingency plans as the $10 million benchmark for Nick's release approaches. Meanwhile Saleem also returns to warn Nick of the consequences should he be plotting some sort of double cross with Bashir. And all the while the American drones are getting closer and closer. It is to Akhtar's credit that he keeps us guessing until the end about who is most playing whom among this triumvirate. And the ending, as clunkily as it arrives, is thematically satisfying, if only for the way in which it shows us how well Bashir has absorbed Nick's lessons.
Under the direction of Richard Wolfe, the play steadily accrues tension and depth, and the scene transitions are additionally enhanced by the amazing vocalizations of Fathieh Honari (Chris Grdina is responsible for the music; the sound effects are by Christopher Kelly). Wolfe also elicits terrific performances from the entire cast, especially Sharma and Erickson. Sharma is a big man and he plays on that physicality by taking up and claiming space--including, in one especially funny scene, Nick's bed. Sharma also manages to convey in his lower class English accent and his violent temper how much of his character's extremist politics are grounded in the racism and poverty he experienced growing up in Houndswell, outside of London. Erickson negotiates Nick's transitions between fearful vulnerability and blustery bravado with tremendous skill. No matter the life and death situation he is in, Nick can't help succumbing to the addictive lure of the next trade--which is often where capitalism and terrorism fatefully (and often fatally) intersect.