Everyone's a player in 'The Invisible Hand,' a smart and tense political drama at American Stage

The complex hostage drama with razor-sharp tensions cuts across cultural and political lines.

Published June 5 2017
Updated June 6 2017

ST. PETERSBURG

This dimly lit gray world feels closed off, as well it might. This corner of an abandoned warehouse has been converted to a jail cell, without any safeguards. Thus the sights and sounds in The Invisible Hand, a tightly woven hostage drama at American Stage, force the audience to comprehend discomfort from its opening moments.

Ayad Akhtar won a 2013 Pulitzer for his earlier play, Disgraced. This one shows the same razor-sharp tensions cutting across cultural and political lines. American investment banker Nick Bright is the prisoner, captured in Pakistan. Though there is an allusion to journalist Daniel Pearl, these captors are more opportunist than idealist. They seek $10 million in ransom from the United States.

Their attempts to get the money and Nick's drive to see his family again collide, creating moments that reflect on our world and its financial underpinnings. Nick, who was being offered a seven-figure salary around the time he was kidnapped, tries to parlay his way to freedom the only way he know how, by teaching his captors how to manipulate the stock market. After the ransom effort goes sour, it's the only option he's got. The details of his desperation, from a tearful video made by his wife to his plea for toilet paper, coincide with the crash course he gives his jailers on money laundering and the interplay between the futures market and world events.

This production directed by Stephanie Gularte, American Stage's producing artistic director, starts off slowly but carefully, as if gathering its legs for a series of quantum leaps. As with Good People, the first show Gularte directed this season, every aspect of production counts as much as every other. A masterful set by Steven Mitchell and lighting by Chris Baldwin (who somehow found the creepiest fluorescent lighting fixtures possible) combine to throw illusions into the shadows. Did someone just step out of a wall, or disappear into a wall? Is that a bunched-up sheet on Nick's cot or a human shape? A pervasive sense of powerlessness and randomness colors all, magnified by the buzzing of nearby drones, one of which lies in a corner of the stage.

But the central achievements lie in the performances of this ensemble. Joe Ditmyer is eminently credible as Nick, the wily prisoner who has made millions by keeping a cool head as markets rise and plunge, though none with stakes this high. His lowest-ranked jailer, Dar (Shrey Neil), a sympathetic clownlike figure, injects an element of humanity that is buried deeper in the other three characters. Layers of complexity in the plot make themselves clear through Imam Saleem, the group's leader played magnificently by Mujahid Abdul-Rashid, who wields a revolver and religious doctrine with equal gravitas; and his idealistic lieutenant Bashir, whose portrayal by Benjamin T. Ismail delivers the biggest surprises with grace and humor.

These four men develop a community inside these walls, albeit one in which mercy even among captors themselves is in short supply. With that established, is freedom in the gutted war zone outside any safer? Nick wants to find out, but the sounds of automatic weapons fire don't make it inviting.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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