September 11 is not an anniversary that lends itself to ambivalence and ambiguity. Which is why it was doubly bold of ACT Theatre to open The Invisible Hand, a tense and morally complicated thriller about Islamic terrorism and Wall Street capitalism, last Thursday. Before the show, artistic director Kurt Beattie broke with ACT tradition and gave a curtain speech saying that in the days leading up to the decision, the theater "took a deep collective breath" and concluded that if theater is about the "deepest conversations" that a community has with itself, then 9/11 was eerily, uncomfortably appropriate.
Ayad Akhtar's play begins in a cinder-block room outside Karachi where an American Citibank employee named Nick Bright—a financial whiz kid who makes millions of dollars by studying the markets and executing the right deal at the right moment—is being held prisoner. We meet his Islamist captors in reverse order of their authority: Dar, a gentle Pakistani youngster; Bashir, an angry Pakistani-Brit who wants to chase away the greedy colonialist infidels; and Imam Saleem, a seemingly reasonable sage who may or may not be as good as his word.
Nick was kidnapped by accident—they were after his boss—but Imam Saleem decides Nick must raise his own $10 million ransom by playing the market while teaching Bashir the fundamental trick of his trade: using information to make money. "Trading's about having an edge," Nick tells Bashir during one of their early lessons. "Knowing something, understanding something that the others haven't figured out yet." Though Nick keeps protesting his innocence—"I didn't do anything!"—things get complicated when their first big score hinges on the fact that Bashir knows that the corrupt minister of water and energy is going to be assassinated. Nick shorts stock on companies tied to the minister and does a victorious fist-pump when the news breaks that he is dead—along with 45 others when a bomb exploded at a wedding.
A few months later, Nick eagerly tells Bashir, "There is a killing to be made on shorting the rupee." The capitalist golden boy has yet to understand that for some people, his figurative killings are all too literal.
Akhtar's script has the moral intelligence of a great play but the jittery energy of a Hollywood blockbuster—a hybrid of terrorist-kidnapping cliff-hanger and Wall Street noir—but the action is all contained in his pugilistic dialogue and the dynamo performances. The constantly shifting relationship between Connor Toms as Nick and Elijah Alexander as his protégé/captor Bashir is especially electrifying. It's difficult to say this without it sounding like a backhanded compliment, but in years of watching Toms onstage, I've never seen him work like this before. Director Allen Nause has found some spigot in him and opened it all the way. In one scene, a frustrated Nick discovers Imam Saleem (William Ontiveros) has been siphoning off his capital—when it comes to capital, a dollar is worth more than a dollar—and Bashir asks if he's forgotten where he is. Nick turns on him in a fast-building flood of anger. "No, I didn't fucking forget!" he begins. "I didn't forget my wife. Or my 3-year-old son. Or some stupid idea I had to make you fuckers money to save my life... You know what else I didn't forget? Your promise to let me go. I know how much your Imam hates lawyers, but when I hear about four hundred thousand dollars missing from our trading account, I'll tell you [here, Toms is slapping the table with staccato rage], I wish I had a fucking lawyer!" The opening-night audience took a deep collective breath of its own.
Amid all the fast-moving emotional turmoil, Akhtar smuggles in some fast lessons in economics and geopolitics: The characters talk about shorts, puts, and the Bretton Woods agreement, as well as drone strikes, inter-Islamist conflicts, and a generation of young Muslims that Bashir compares to the international brigades that nobly fought the fascist Franco during the Spanish Civil War. "That's what a whole generation of us is doing," he says. "Giving up soft lives in the West to fight for something meaningful." One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. And, whether you're on the side of Wall Street or the Islamists, you're implicated. As Imam Saleem thunders after one of Nick's protestations of his innocence: "Three thousand of your people are killed on one day and it gives you the license to kill however many hundreds of thousands more of our people for 10 years? And to feel so good about it! You are murdering hypocrites."
Given all the talk about race and casting in Seattle this past summer—with controversies surrounding a non–African American actor playing Othello and the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society's "yellowface" production of The Mikado—it would be obtuse not to mention that the three actors playing Pakistanis are of Latino and mixed-race descent. ACT says the original plan was to bring in two actors from Pakistan, but they couldn't get visas for the project. Don't let that stop you from seeing the play. Seattle's theater season is just beginning, but The Invisible Hand is already in the running to be one of the most memorable shows of the season.