Invisible Hand review Ayad Akhtar
Somebody give this playwright a Pulitzer. Oh, right — Ayad Akhtar already has one, for a previous play, “Disgraced,” which is currently running on Broadway. Although this new one continues the scribe’s interest in the clashing ideologies of Americans and Muslims, “The Invisible Hand” is far more politically provocative, opening as it does in a Pakistani prison where an American banker is being held for ransom. Confounding initial indications, the play is not a captive narrative about pain and torture but a scary (and dreadfully funny) treatise on the universality of human greed.

Akhtar takes the title of his play from Adam Smith, who opined that “the invisible hand” of free market forces will function as an automatic corrective whenever the economy is out of whack. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner,” Smith declared, “but from their regard to their own self interest.”

That quasi-religious belief in the profit motive is something to keep in mind during the first act of this charged drama, which opens in a bleak prison cell somewhere in Pakistan, where an American banker named Nick Bright (Justin Kirk, earnest and ultimately endearing), is now in his third week of captivity. Riccardo Hernandez designed the chilling cinderblock of a set and Tyler Micoleau provides the punishing lighting, jointly establishing (with a nice assist from Leah Gelpe’s sound design) a claustrophobic environment that would drive anyone mad. Under the circumstances, Nick is remarkably self-possessed.

But not even the repetition of our mantra (Wait for the Profit Motive to Kick In) can cut the tension when Bashir (the totally commanding Usman Ally),  Nick’s heavily armed and thoroughly imposing captor, steps in to harangue his prisoner for the failure of Citibank to cough up his exorbitant $10 million ransom. The fact that the intended target was Nick’s boss cuts no ice with Bashir or his frighteningly serene Imam Saleem (the charismatic Dariush Kashani). One rich American is as good as another — and as expendable.