Saturday, June 2, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 75, A Review: "The Invisible Hand" (TheaterWorks/Hartford)

By James V. Ruocco

Urgent matters of money, religion, cultural identity, banking, corruption and terrorism figure prominently in TheaterWorks gripping staging of  "The Invisible Hand," written by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Ayad Akhtar.

Well-acted and directed.

"The Invisible Hand" is both volatile and grim, fraught with a real sense of danger and pathos that keeps its audience purposely on edge. It also contains some healthy moments and passages of humor, which the playwright uses most effectively, when the situation calls for a cheeky twist or turn, if only fleetingly.

In the play, Nick Bright, a money-hungry American banker has been wrongfully kidnapped by Pakistani militants who have mistaken him for his high-profile Citibank boss. Regardless, they want a $10 million ransom for their prisoner's release, which the United States refuses to negotiate.
To survive, Bright adapts the role of international market trader, trading futures and currencies with flair and precision, making money for his captors while teaching them how to profit from their capitalistic gains.

Not to worry. Even if you don't understand the logistics of international finance or repeated trader jargon that includes puts, shorts or basket trading, you are never at a loss. It's all very fascinating, including a dicey, well-etched plot conceit involving Bright's special monetary funding.

The works of playwright/ author/screenwriter Ayad Akhtar include "American Dervish," "Disgraced" and "The War Within." All three reveal his passion for fervent, impulsive, vitally important dialogue that jumps off the page with wit, intelligence and urgency. "The Invisible Hand" continues that notion. It is powerful. It is commanding. It is simple. It is natural. It is tense. Like "Disgraced" it is one of those theatrical pieces where every spoken word is important to the story, the characters he has created to bring the dialogue to life and the scene-by-scene advancement of the production over a two-act period.

Thus, "The Invisible Hand" is not to be taken likely. To fully experience it, you must listen to each word, each sentence, each passage and each exchange between the play's pivotal four characters. It is overwhelmingly talky in ways that demand your attention 100 per cent. So if you look away, check out a name or two in the playbill, unwrap a mint or glance at your watch, you are definitely going to miss something. Like Athol Fugard's riveting "A Lesson From Aloes," currently being showcased at Hartford Stage, "The Invisible Hand" demands that same actor/audience listening respect in order for the play to fully achieve its emotional sweep, its pacing, its progression and its cathartic normality.

At Theater Works, "The Invisible Hand" is being staged by director David Kennedy whose directorial credits include "Loot," "Tartuffe," "Suddenly Last Summer" and "Appropriate." Kennedy also staged "The Invisible Hand" at the Westport Country Playhouse back in 2016. Here, he crafts an important work that generates apt dramatic tension and pulse. It's a play that he knows well, both inside and out, but he never once takes things for granted.
Everything that happens on the TheaterWorks stage has been carefully thought out, shaped, molded and turned over to his brilliantly talented cast who never once make a false move or let the play's high-energy or drama falter for a second. "The Invisible Hand" contains lots and lots of scenes. Some are long. Some are short. Still, there's real purpose and imagination to Kennedy's approach of this restaging. It all connects seamlessly, from its heated economic and political arguments and surprise ending to an eerie, uneasy tension that extends through both acts regarding the fate of not one, but two of its characters.

The performances are taut, effective and consistently rich.
As Nick Bright, Eric Bryant humanizes his character with a pungent mix of arrogance, humor, despair, pragmatism, craziness and mental disconnection. The well-sketched plotting and cranked up tension that Kennedy instills throughout the play's course provides additional fuel for the actor to grapple and play with most instinctively.

Fajer Kaisi's Bashir, a very complicated, driven man seduced by faith and the thrill of making serious money under Bright's tutelage, is played with chilling, brutal, believable authority by the actor. Rajesh Bose, as Imam Saleem, a captor who hopes to use Nick's ransom money to benefit the Pakistani people's welfare, inhabits his role with real force, dignity and when necessary, a patch or two of deftly-defined humor. Anand Bhatt's Dar, a low-level captor who befriends Bright, makes his presence known. He is played most engagingly by Bhatt, but the character, unfortunately, is only a minor player in "The Invisible Hand" story.

"The Invisible Hand" is a vivid, impassioned work that unfolds with edgy, intense authority. The performances and direction are pitch perfect. The dialogue is intelligent and absorbing. As a theater piece, the two-act drama is unmissable. And lastly, "The Invisible Hand" reaffirms TheaterWorks ongoing commitment to important theater that has included such fine and diverse theatrical fare as "The Wolves,"  "Constellations," "The Legend of Georgia McBride" and "Next to Normal."

"The Invisible Hand" is being staged at TheaterWorks (233 Pearl St., Hartford, CT), now through June 23.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-7838

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