If any theater writer could be described as ‘having a moment’ right now, it’s Ayad Akhtar. His newest play, The Invisible Hand, is his third produced in NYC this year alone. (The justly acclaimed, Pulitzered Disgraced, however, is technically a Broadway debut, having been produced Off-Broadway in 2012, but certain to be the first exposure to his work for many.) New York Theatre Workshop’s production of his latest drama—playing through Jan. 4—is quite possibly his most thematically ambitious to date: mapping how the desire for global money can trump terrorism even at its most ugly and unredeeming. But rich as the milieu is, the production unfolds at far too leisurely a pace to do justice to Akhtar’s bold patterns of thought.
Citibanker Nick Bright (Weeds star Justin Kirk) is kidnapped by Pakistani militants—who mistake him for his much more powerful boss—and his only recourse is to ingratiate himself to his chief jailer Bashir (Usman Ally) and head honcho Imam Saleem (Dariush Kashani) by asking they permit him to raise his $10 million ransom through his own financial wizardry. He endears himself to the boyish guard Dar (Jameal Ali) and eventually, with much effort, to the English-born Bashir, who detests American bravado but loves their comics, and challenges Nick on his often-entitled, self-preserving nature. Craftily, Akhtar asks that we see Nick’s flippancy as nearly as dangerous as his captors’ terrorist impulses, and like his other works, imbues his hot-button plays with welcome bursts of humor. (Sample line: ”You’re not so clever after all, are you, Mr. Bright?”)
So then, why does this production feel so, well, relaxed? One thing Akhtar’s work does best is unsettle even in the quietest, most mundane moments (Disgraced, for example, is plenty tense even before it’s celebrated, extended dinner party gone awry), but director Ken Rus Schmoll’s presentation has a languid quality that lets the tension flitter away like puffs of gunpowder smoke. And that quality extends to Kirk’s performance as well. With his signature slackened drawl, Kirk conveys the more callow aspects of Nick’s personality marvelously, and has a terrific rapport with Ally’s believably conflicted torturer, but you’re still left searching for a more complete person by play’s end. Despite the brandished rifles and grim, gray prison-cell environs on display (courtesy of set designer Riccardo Hernandez), one should leave positively chilled by the larger implications of the story (especially with judicious, news-of-now inclusions such as beheadings and drones), and not merely taken in by Nick’s verbal waltz with Bashir. B-