In playwright Ayad Akhtar’s gripping but uneven drama The Invisible Hand—running through July 3 at the Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley—the corruptive power of money is examined through a clever and original lens: that of Muslim kidnappers negotiating a ransom for a captured American banker. The ultimate point of the play, however—that money is addictive and destructive—is as old as the art of theater itself.
It’s not Akhtar’s message, or his exposition-heavy explorations of international banking, that makes The Invisible Hand a theater experience worth having. It’s the magnificent stagecraft conjured by director Jasson Minadakis, who invests in sounds, lights and silence to accumulate a rich and mostly rewarding dramatic bankroll.
Inside a grimy brick prison cell in Pakistan, banker Nick Bright (Craig Marker) is being held by the followers of a radical, West-hating Imam (Barzin Akhavan). The real target of the kidnapping was his much more important boss, and the frightened Nick soon learns he is not important enough to leverage the required $10 million.
Taunted and tested by the English-born captor Bashir (Pomme Koch), Nick soon comes to understand that he will be executed if the ransom is not paid. Encouraged by the kindness of a sympathetic jailer named Dar (Jason Kapoor), he makes a desperate offer. If allowed access to information and a computer, Nick will raise the ransom himself, using the stock market and a series of tricky insider trading moves. It’s a great idea for a play.
For the first act, orchestrated with near cinematic attention to detail, the tension rapidly builds. But in the second act, the action shifts to a different kind of dramatic strain, that of time stretching out, as a series of setbacks leads Nick—and all of us watching in the audience—to begin to doubt he’ll ever reach his goal and earn his freedom.
Director Minadakis and his expert team of designers work hard to keep things moving. But it doesn’t all add up. Much of the onstage violence is unconvincing, and the performances, though solid, rarely soar to the degree we’ve come to expect from an MTC production.
Still, there is so much to appreciate here, one should not dismiss or avoid the production for its occasional failures. Because, like Nick working the markets while chained to the wall, The Invisible Hand may not always deliver on its promises, but when it does, it’s a real rush.
Rating (out of 5): ★★★½