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Review: Ensemble Theatre Co.‘s ‘The Invisible Hand’ Is Right on the Money

Jameal Ali, left, Sarang Sharma, John Tufts and Mujahid Abdul-Rashid star in Ensemble Theatre Co.‘s “The Invisible Hand” by Ayad Akhtar. Click to view larger
Jameal Ali, left, Sarang Sharma, John Tufts and Mujahid Abdul-Rashid star in Ensemble Theatre Co.‘s “The Invisible Hand” by Ayad Akhtar. (David Bazemore photo)

You have until April 29 to see Ensemble Theatre Co.’s production of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ayad Akhtar’s sharp and complex The Invisible Hand at the New Vic.

If you’re even remotely into theater, world affairs or finance, I can’t encourage you enough to find a way to get there.

Nuanced and potent performances by four convincing actors, a swift pace and compelling sound, lighting and set kept the audience rapt at Wednesday night’s dynamic performance.

An American stock trader working in Pakistan for a major global bank, Nick Bright is kidnapped and held hostage for ransom by local extremists. Nick turns to his wits to try to arrange his own release. He convinces his captors to let him earn his own ransom by trading stocks.

Local religious leader Imam Saleem installs his passionate London-born, repatriate follower Bashir as Nick’s protégé and proctor. A young guard, Dar, rounds out the cast.

The entire play is set in Nick’s holding cell. A room with worn brick walls spans the entire stage and reaches as high as the audience can see.

The stage goes completely black between scenes, but the set is outlined in light, keeping us aware enough that we are in a theater. In the face of such gripping storytelling, this is a gift.

The darkness provides a moment for the audience to exhale in the midst of imminent danger, and to wonder, “What will happen next?”

The set evolves subtly. Each time the lights come up again, we can see how the plot has advanced before anyone utters a word.

The struggle for agency in the face of multiple outside influences plays out in Nick’s literal captivity, but also in each of the three other characters, whose complexity unfolds throughout the story.

John Tufts’ Nick is savvy, skillful and scared, and we watch as he understands his vulnerability and shifts his approach to saving himself as circumstances change.

Jameal Ali, who starred in the Obie-winning original off-Broadway production of the play, captivates as Bashir, a militant fueled by anger and disillusionment resulting from his family’s migration to London before he was born.

He’s returned to Pakistan with a passion to serve the people, though his tactics for doing so twist and morph as his trading skills develop and he is disillusioned again, this time by his chosen family.

Mujahid Abdul-Rajid, in a reprisal of his role as Imam Saleem, delivers a portrayal that’s confident but not overplayed.

And Sarang Sharma brings depth to the young guard Dar, who we see trying to exercise some control over his circumstances as well.

Each is motivated by complex self-interest, each is fighting for his particular notion of “life,” and the interplay among them is in itself a force that evolves over the course of the story.

The play’s title refers to Adam Smith’s term for the force of competing self-interests that balance and check the free market.

In an engaging pre-show talk, ETC resident dramaturg Sam Lahne provided background on the playwright, the story, this production, the stock market, Pakistan’s history of partition from India, and even the work of a dramaturg. It was really enriching to have all that context going into the performance.

Artistic director Jonathan Fox directed this production, and everything about the experience, from the pre-show talk to the staging to the quality of the acting, rewarded us for showing up.

The Invisible Hand runs through April 29. Click here for tickets, or call 805.965.5400.

Noozhawk contributor and local arts critic Judith Smith-Meyer is a round-the-clock appreciator of the creative act. She can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are her own.

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