Drone sounds wax and wane outside…
Sometimes there are also sounds of bombs…
In a small cell with little more than a sparse cot, a Princeton grad American banker, Nick (played by Joel Reitsma) awaits one of his captors. He is in some corner of Pakistan sometime after Daniel Pearl had been beheaded and Osama bin Laden was assassinated.
But the time of this story by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Ayad Akhtar is perhaps most precisely defined as THE time when financiers of the world began seizing control of the world’s potable water supply in hopes of making water futures and the like the new petrodollars. That time is NOW.
Starting with the privatization of potable water
Imam Saleem (played by Bassam Abdelfattah), a charismatic leader who happens to have logged some time in New Jersey not far from Nick’s alma mater, had assigned his trusted lieutenant Bashir (played by Owais Ahmed) to kidnap one of the bankers pursuing this treacherous privatization of water. Nick is the accidental hostage that Bashir et al had bagged instead of his big time banker boss whom they had been targeting. A bounty of $10 million has been set for Nick’s head, but the turn of political events has frozen negotiations.
Nick has ample finance skills, and this has not been lost on the Imam. We- and the Imam-- first learn of this when Nick’s closest guard, Dar (played by Anand Bhatt) lets on that with Nick’s tutoring on futures he was able to buy and sell potatoes to make what to him is a huge profit. Neither Dar’s entrepreneurship nor Bashir’s botched kidnapping especially please the Imam, but they do give him the idea to make Nick work for his own bounty, training Bashir to make millions for the cause.
Finance Lesson Made into a Thriller
The invisible hand of the title’s reference is a permutation of Adam Smith’s logic that everyone’s self-interest is what keeps both the wheels of progress churning and keeps the market re-aligning for the alleged common good. This play is Akhtar’s deep think on capitalism. Imagine a university-level lecture on finance turned into a psychological and political thriller. Throw into the mix a playwright’s reveries of The Stockholm Syndrome and human nature bared to the bone.
That econ lecture at the University might be dry, but not a moment in Akhtar’s script is anything less than gripping. Steppenwolf Ensemble member Audrey Francis’ direction makes darn sure of that.
There is not a spec of padding or fat in this production. Staging, set (Scenic Designer Ashley Ann Woods) and especially that drone crescendo and decrescendo in the air (Sound Designer and Composer – Thomas Dixon) is thought out in fine detail and it shows.
The high bar one expects for Steep Theatre Actors is More than Met
At the play’s conclusion expect to marvel at the quality of the acting—as we always seem to do at Steep Theatre productions. Anand Bhatt transforms from the innocent country boy to the brutish henchman, enlivening the script’s capture of the key moments that propelled this transformation. Owais Ahmed roils with the resentments one might expect of any Londoner of Pakistani descent with more intelligence than has ever been given its due. His role, more than any other, requires him to breathe the dual frames of raw power vs. humanity and he does it without flaw throughout. Bassam Abdelfattah infuses his Imam character with both charisma and brutality, electrifying us as soon as he takes his first regal strides into the prison cell. And especially, come to the play knowing that Joel Reitsma’s performance will be engraved in your memory banks as if it were done so with a branding iron. From swagger to barely there, Reitsma’s Nick is riveting.
Akhtar has given capitalism, human nature, and geo-political realities circa now a 3-dimensional X-ray. When even life-sustaining water is for sale, those invisible hands that are supposed to steady markets are more like Lady Macbeth’s. Akhtar isn’t telling us how to get that blood off our hands. Don’t expect that sequel. Expect to think about power and greed anew.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.