Theater loves the conflict that emerges when history makes unlikely partners out of simultaneous cultural developments. On the surface, hedge funds and Islamic fundamentalism haven’t got much to do with one another, other than the fact that both have risen to prominence at the same moment in time. In Ayad Akhtar’s 2014 drama The Invisible Hand, however, the two phenomena become intimately entwined through the imaginative response of Nick Bright, an American banker, to the fact that he has been kidnapped by an Islamic group in Pakistan.
Bright, who will be played by the award-winning actor John Tufts in Ensemble Theatre Company’s (ETC) upcoming production, has to think fast because he’s not the terrorists’ original intended target. When his captors discover that Bright is not his boss, who would be worth more, his value to them falls to a dangerously low level. In order to save his own life, Nick bargains with his guards by demonstrating how they can fund their activities through trading futures online rather than by collecting ransom. As a captive, Nick is not worth much, but as a source of investment revenue, he can at least buy some time. The question is, will there be enough profit in his scheme to keep him alive? That’s what hangs in the balance in The Invisible Hand, which critics have described as a taut thriller from Akhtar, the winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama — for Disgraced — and America’s most-produced playwright of the 2015-16 season.
Akhtar’s ambitious plan to write a seven-part multimedia exploration of the Muslim-American experience is already nearly finished. Starting in 2012 with the novel American Dervish, the 47-year-old playwright set out to create a feature film, three novels, and three plays on this theme, and just six years later he’s gotten through one novel and all three of the plays. Disgraced received a fine production here at Center Stage in the fall. In that story, Akhtar looked at what happens when a Muslim American succeeds in scaling the lofty barriers to entry surrounding one of Manhattan’s top law firms. In The Invisible Hand, he reverses the perspective by throwing a single New Yorker into a situation where he’s surrounded by Islamic fundamentalists. “It’s almost the opposite of the dinner party in Disgraced,” according to Tufts, whom I spoke with last week shortly after he left rehearsal. What it has in common with the other play, according to Tufts, is the ingenuity of the characters, the sophistication of the dialogue, and the energy of the plot. “It’s a fencing match of language, and all the characters know a lot,” said Tufts, who noted that the play fulfills the famous dictum that “a good play is one where everyone is right.”
Jameal Ali, who originated the role of Dar in the play’s New York, off-Broadway debut, will also appear in this production. With ETC Artistic Director Jonathan Fox at the helm, this Santa Barbara version will travel to Germany as part of a coproduction arrangement between Ensemble and the English Theatre Frankfurt. For Tufts — who scored a triumph in his last outing at ETC, in the one-man show I Am My Own Wife — there’s excitement in bringing such urgent social issues to the stage in a format that promises both tension and humanity. “Even a well-written news article about a situation like this inevitably keeps a certain distance,” said Tufts, “but this play distills what’s happening into a thriller, and that brings the audience in deeper.”
The Invisible Hand is at the Ensemble Theatre Company’s New Vic (33 W. Victoria St.) April 12-29. Call 965-5400 or visit ensembletheatre.com.