I can guarantee that you will not find a more powerful, relevant or moving drama in any Seattle theater than “The Invisible Hand” by Ayad Akhtar, now playing at ACT under the direction of Allen Nause. Akhtar was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his play, “Disgraced” and he is clearly a playwright of extraordinary talent and conviction. Here, his exceptionally finished and intelligent writing is at the service of a familiar, commonplace story that has enormous repercussions for the current state of the world, for the complex, everyday conflicts in the Middle East and for the intimate suffering of so many individuals caught up in it. Of course, this sort of drama must be filled with politics, but this story is not about ideology or power, but about human beings struggling to triumph over wretched circumstances and against often invisible opponents.
We find ourselves in a small cell somewhere in Pakistan, where a lower-level Citibank financial worker is being held captive. He was mistakenly abducted (they wanted his boss) by a group of Islamic militants who decide that this young man just might be able to use his financial prowess to raise as much money as they had hoped to get for him in ransom. The young man, Nick Bright, decides that success in this game may be his best way of surviving, and he unexpectedly finds himself actually making friends with his captors, a decision with dangerous and complex ramifications for all concerned. The most powerful of his captives, Bashir, has a link with the West through his own personal background, but that in no way closes the distance between him and Bright. Bashir’s relationship with the underling, Dar, is much more emblematic of how he sees Nick, although he knows that the American has much more to offer. The final character, the Imam Saleen, is a complex blend of all the vices and virtues of a “religious” state at war with the contemporary world. That world ultimately becomes not only the opportunity for Nick’s release, but the ill-defined arena for his continued battle for survival.
All of these characters are rich and thoroughly genuine. There is not a false moment in the entire play and never an obvious or simple word uttered by any of them. Their interactions feel spontaneous and thoroughly believable, their hopes and fears thoroughly rooted in the reality of their lives. The extent of Nick’s financial knowledge is delivered to us in such a way that we don’t really have to understand it technically to know that he knows what he’s doing, exactly the recognition that Bashir has. It is a dangerous and false presumption to think we know much of anything about any of these men, and yet we feel that we know each of them very well. The play is filled with surprises and thrilling intensity, but never feels contrived or dramatically hyped. It is as well-written a drama as I’ve seen in a very long time.
As for the actors, Connor Toms delivers an absolutely brilliant performance as Nick Bright. Never anything more or less than the man that he is, Nick makes us value every instant of his endurance, his ordinary connection to the world and to the other men, his shattering fear for his own survival, his distance from this world and his intimate connection with it as well. Courageous, frightened, smart about his knowledge while ignorant of so many larger issues, connected to the most extraordinary existence through the most ordinary of small pleasures, willing to do what must be done but never willing to abdicate his humanity, Nick makes us measure exactly how you or I would act in the same circumstances.
As his principle captor, Elijah Alexander is equally compelling and powerful as Bashir. Balancing brutality with a sense of civilized hope, his enormous stage presence becomes all of the power that shackles Nick in this forgotten place. What I liked best about Bashir was the sense that he would do anything, anything to advance his cause, but that it must already have been justified in his own mind and to his own morality. Entrance to that dark and forbidding place is as captivating and dangerous as the cell where Nick is held.
Erwin Galan did an excellent job as the assistant, Dar, allowing us to appreciate that all lower-level individuals in such a world live under the same obligations of duty and obedience, and that their own identities, hopes and dreams will rarely show on the radar of geopolitical world events. For the Imam, a man of much greater stature but living in no less danger, William Ontiveros was moving and convincing as a man who understands and commands power, but who falls from grace through actions that he may or may not have committed. Most importantly to the success of this play, the ensemble fully creates the entire world of the play, and they are perfectly balanced and emotionally modulated.
I cannot recommend “The Invisible Hand” highly enough. We are each every character in this play, and their world is our world, as well. The physical production is attractive and thoroughly appropriate, and the direction is as tight and resonant as the drumhead of the story. Don’t miss this show. If you ever find yourself wondering what importance the theater can have in our complex, technological and politically volatile world, this play will remind you that life is about the people who live it. You need to meet these four men so that you’ll better recognize them in your mirror.
PICTURED ABOVE: Elijah Alexander holds Connor Toms
PHOTO BY: Chris Bennion