"You see, I believe that money is the opiate of the people, not religion. Money is what puts people to sleep when it comes to the moral dimension of life. And the only tonic, the only remedy for this sleeping sickness of money ... do you know what it is? "
That question, posed by an Imam in Pakistan to his political prisoner, is at the heart of "The Invisible Hand," the intelligent and seductive play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar that opened at the Milwaukee Rep Friday night.
The secrets to a great play – and make no mistake, this is a great play – are easy to identify, and hard to achieve. You need characters that the audience can care about. You need a story that rings genuine. And you need courage to tell the story without compromise.
All of those elements are there in Akhtar’s play and the production, under the blistering direction of Lucie Tiberghien.
Nick Bright (Tom Coiner) is a Citibank investment banker who has been captured by a Pakistani group and is being held in a small cell. His captors are the Imam Saleem (Tony Mirrcandani) and Bashir (Shalin Agarwal). A rural Pakistani, Dar (Owais Ahmed), is the guard who oversees the prisoner who is being held in a bleak cell.
Bright is being held for a ransom of $10 million, an amount that Citibank won’t pay. But Akhtar has a solution to this dilemma at hand. Bright will use his experience and brains and financial touch to raise money for the Imam.
Bashir mans the laptop and Bright calls the shots and before you can say "show me the money" the funds begin to roll in. Hundreds of thousands of dollars, all to serve the cause and create an ever-growing bucket of ransom cash.
This play is full of surprise and tension and I don’t want to spoil any of it for audiences but let it be said that this is as searing a look at the omnipotent consumption of capitalism as you are likely to see. The initial look made me think that this was another play about terrorism and the barbaric captors. The barbarism turned out to be something other than the captors although the chains were equally as strong.
The title Akhtar chose is from the "Wealth of Nations" written by Adam Smith and published in 1776. The concept of the invisible hand is a simple one as explained on Investopedia:
"Smith used the metaphor of the invisible hand to refer to the guidance and benefit society receives when individuals act in their own self-interest when trying to make money. According to Smith, when consumers are left to freely choose what they want to buy, and businesses are left to freely decide what they want to sell, the self-interest of both will lead to decisions that result in good prices and the right products in the economy and marketplace. As a result, Smith argued that no government intervention is needed. We simply have the invisible hand of economic self-interest to guide us."
This self-interest infuses each of the four characters in the play and the eventual triumph of money over all else is a moving and chilling affirmative indictment of of the world in which we live. From the lust for dollars for political candidates to the drive to have the biggest and best gun in town, that self-interest proves as destructive, both to an individual and to a world, as a plague.
This production is the first of a four-year relationship between the Rep and Akhtar, and Milwaukee is richer because of it. He has a world view that is not cloistered and a willingness to explore that world without limit.
Coiner and Agarwal spend most of their time on stage together and it’s the kind of magical relationship that two great actors can establish. The growth from antagonists to something resembling brothers is a marvel to behold, couched as it is in the joined pursuit of the same thing, money, money money.
Coiner is both desperate and confident, willing and hesitant all at the same time. Agarwal plays off both the strengths and weaknesses of h is prisoner and is a fierce actor.
Mirrcandani is a charismatic and wise character. He has a dignity about him that transcends the stereotype and creates a man of sympathy and envy.
Ahmed is a Chicago based actor who has the kind of honesty that let’s us in on his secret life and his reluctance to be a terrorist.
The entire production is enhanced by the scenic design of Dan Conway and a spectacularly subtle and evocative lighting designed by Robert Perry.
In the end Akhtar’s play is about temptation and the corruption it engenders despite moral certitude that crumbles in the face of such a power.
"The Invisible Hand" runs through April 3 and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.
Production Credits: Director, Lucie Tiberghien; Scenic Designer, Dan Conway; Lighting Designer, Robert Perry; Dialect Coach, Jill Walmsley Zager; Casting Director, JC Clementz; Costume Designer, Leslie Vaglica; Original Music and Sound Design, Victoria Deiorio; Fight Director, Jamie Cheatham; New York Casting, Stephanie Klapper; Stage Manager, Kimberly Carolus.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
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