Artists Rep's 'The Invisible Hand' Packs a Punch

Money and morals make for uneasy bedfellows, as the Artists Repertory makes clear in its Portland premier of Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand.

By Fiona McCann March 16, 2015

Photo credit: Owen Carey

Capitalism. Terrorism. Colonialism. Oh yes, and American lawyers. There are many targets in the hard-hitting play by Pakistani-American Ayad Akhtar that opened on Saturday, March 14 at the Artists Repertory.

The Invisible Hand—taking its name from the Adam Smith phrase to describe how individual self-interest has unintended social benefits—opens in a Pakistani prison cell, where American investment banker Nick Bright (Connor Toms) is being held captive. In a bid to win his freedom, Bright strikes a deal with his captor’s leader Imam Saleem (a magnetic, avuncular William Ontiveros) to turn a $2 million ransom into $10 million by playing the market.  

He is given as his assistant and student one of his captors, Bashir (Imran Sheikh), a heavily-armed, London-born wise guy whose early displays of brutism give way to humaneness and humor as he learns how intoxicating making money can be.

Bashir’s not the only one who’s being taught a lesson here, yet the risks of didacticism as characters hold forth on faith, corruption and the chaos-theory impact of every market trade are in large part allayed by the a constant questioning about what it is we’re really learning here.

Nothing is black or white, and it’s in the shades of grey that Akhtar’s play has its greatest power: the “good guys” make bad things happen, the “bad guys” have good reasons for their disaffection. Everybody, it seems, has blood on their hands.

Artists Repertory does an able job with this tense production, which had a long gestation before finally making its way before Portland audiences. Allen Nause, the company’s former Artistic Director, had planned to stage it over two years ago, but visa delays for the Pakistani actors Nause wanted to bring in forced him to postpone. In the interim, Akhtar went on to win a Pulitzer for his play Disgraced and to give The Invisible Hand a major rewrite, while Nause stepped down as Artistic Director.

Finally, with the help of Seattle’s ACT Theatre—Nause directed the play in Seattle last fall and brings two of that city’s actors to the Artists Repertory production—Portland audiences can witness what The Invisible Hand makes searingly visible: the effects of money on morals, and of the market on the masses whose lives are forever altered by the individual actions which make it tick.

The Invisible Hand at Artists Repertory runs through April 5.  

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