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St. Louis by Robert Boyd

The Invisible Hand
Repertory Theater of St. Louis

The final play in this year's Studio Series at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis is the world premier of Ayad Akhtar's taut and absorbing The Invisible Hand. I entered the theater not knowing quite what to expect; pre-show publicity suggested that the main characters were an American hostage in Pakistan and his captors, which I supposed meant some sort of physical thriller focused on escape from a squalid prison and brutal captors. Akhtar does indeed present us with a prison, though not particularly squalid, and with two brief scenes of sudden and shocking brutality. But the burden of this play is in its duelling ideas, and its genius is in the way Akhtar choreographs an unsettling but entirely convincing confrontation between the unspoken major premises of Western economic culture and those of the Islamic world.

Nick, a hapless American stocks and commodities trader for a major bank, is a hostage by accident. His captors were aiming for the chairman of the bank, but hit the wrong car. Stuck with what they have, they are demanding ten million dollars in ransom money, money that Nick doesn't have and that no one else—not the bank, not the US government—seems interested in paying. The solution the captors hit upon is both ironic and fitting. Using the sorts of trading tricks that are moral anathema to Islamic fundamentalists (essentially gambling, even though without the odds), Nick is to raise the money for his own ransom.

In the process of this technically intricate and arcane activity, Nick quite unintentionally seduces his chief captor, Bashir, with the aphrodisiac of economic power and sudden money. And as Bashir learns the basics of stock options from Nick, he equally unintentionally implants in Nick's vulnerable conscience the communitarian values of the Islamic village, in which the very concept of "enlightened self interest"—the force that makes the Western markets work—is considered pathological.

The play's climax is both appealing and appalling, as both characters carry their altered philosophies to absurd, and in one case tragic, extremes. Thus, in one sense Akhtar's vision is dark, even nihilistic; but in another sense the story suggests that dialog across such profound divisions might after all be possible, and that, if only tentatively, human beings from both sides of the divides might learn from each other.

John Hickock is a tightly wound Nick, always on the edge of rage or despair; it is a role demanding great physical energy and simultaneous discipline, and Mr. Hickock handles it deftly. Bhavesh Patel, as Bashir, startles the audience with his London dialect; like Nick, Bashir can fly into rages, but in his calmer moments, and despite the working class accent, Mr. Patel builds a character both intelligent and thoughtful. Ahmed Hassan and Michael James Reed do solid work with minor roles.

Seth Gordon, the Rep's Associate Artistic Director, keeps this tightly written script moving at speed, achieving a delicate balance between ideas and action. Scott C. Neale's settings are beautifully thought through, and as usual in the studio lately, finished with great attention to detail. He and lighting designer Ann Wrightson have done some very impressive technical tricks with computerized displays during the scene changes. Lou Bird's costumes, as usual, are most effective.

The Invisible Hand is, in short, a play both profound and exciting, worth seeing for the clash of ideas as well as for the clashes of the characters. I recommend it without reservation. It will run through March 25 in the Studio space at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis. For ticket information call 314 968 4925 or visit www.repstl.org.


-- Robert Boyd

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