A skilled enough playwright will get me through the door even for a play about a subject I don’t find terribly interesting. Exhibit A: Ayad Akhtar’s play The Invisible Hand, currently receiving its Chicago debut at Steep Theatre, with direction by Audrey Francis. As the title suggests, the subject matter is economic; an American banker kidnapped by a militant Pakistani group tries to earn his way to freedom by using his financial expertise to raise the money for his own ransom. A play about finance, especially one with no women in it, would not normally attract my attention, but after seeing the Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced at the Goodman and The Who and the What at Victory Gardens, I’m prepared to watch anything Ayad Akhtar has to offer.
I was not disappointed. Akhtar’s writing is smart and incisive, and his scripts are impeccably well-crafted. The Invisible Hand is no exception. Bashir, one of Nick’s kidnappers, serves as a stand-in for the audience as Nick explains stock markets and interest rates to him, so I wasn’t left drowning in financial jargon even as so much of the story centered on it.
Intense and shifting relationships between the characters drive the story as well; Nick’s standing with Bashir; Dar, a lower-ranking member of the group assigned to his care; and Imam Saleem, the group’s leader and visionary, shifts constantly throughout the story, as does the relationship between Bashir and the imam. There are power struggles here, yes, and fascinating ones, but there are also clashes of culture and ultimately morality. The idea I found the most gripping was that of an individual American’s culpability in the chaos our government has wrought in the Middle East. Bashir assures Nick, more than once, that the violent events happening around him are “no blood on his hands”—but both Nick and the audience are left to question if this is true.
This is a play in which I do not see myself reflected. As I stated earlier, there are no women, and the character with which I, a white American, am set up to identify with is a Wall Street banker—about as far from an artist, part-time library employee, and theatre critic as a person can be. And yet it is a testament to Akhtar’s writing that not only was it easy for me to empathize with the characters’ struggles—all of them, even as they presented conflicting interests and points of view—but I also found myself questioning how much Pakistani blood might be on my own hands.
Sure, it’s easy to dismiss Nick as fundamentally different from myself—a Wall Street banker might be responsible for violence and poverty in the Middle East, but surely I’m not—but in the same way that the play doesn’t let Nick off the hook for his complacency, it doesn’t let the audience off the hook, either. It’s an unsettling piece in that way, and an essential one. When we cede responsibility to the so-called “invisible hand” of capitalism, what cost do we and the rest of the world pay? Ayad Akhtar might not have the answers, but he does the difficult and nuanced work of forcing us to examine the question.
Location: Steep Theatre, 1115 West Berwyn, Chicago, IL 60640
Dates: October 5 – November 11, 2017
Times: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 8pm. Sunday matinees at 3pm on October 15, 22, and 29
Accessible Performances: Audio Description: Sunday, October 29 at 3:00pm. Open Captioning: Saturday, November 4 at 3:00pm
Tickets: General Admission: $27. Reserved Seat Tickets: $38. Access Tickets: $10 (Steep’s universal discount for students, artists, whomever)
For tickets, call (773) 649-3186 or visit the Steep Theatre website.
Starting with this production, Steep’s box office will not charge online ticketing service fees.