Cleveland, Ohio — An ‘invisible hand’ manipulates the stock markets, creating a checks-and-balances system fueled by individual self-interest and made possible through a free market. And so stems the name for Ayad Akhtar’s “The Invisible Hand.”
In theatrical productions labeled as thrillers, it can be argued that a similar invisible hand is at work, wrapping its fingers around an audience and pulling them into an engaging and intriguing show. No such force exists in Cleveland Play House’s geopolitical thriller, “The Invisible Hand,” a show that never quite engages or thrills.
Pulitzer Prize-winning Akhtar wrote “The Invisible Hand,” which opened in 2015 and is now at the Outcalt Theatre under the direction of Pirronne Yousefzadeh.
The show opens in a cell in Pakistan where Citibank worker Nick Bright is being held hostage. His captor, Bashir, will not settle for anything less than a $10 million ransom, but because the organization’s leader, Imam Saleem, is labeled a terrorist, the U.S. refuses to negotiate. Bargaining for his life, Nick convinces Bashir and Imam Saleem that he can raise his own ransom money by working the stock market.
As a captive of terrorists, Nick Bright never experiences Stockholm Syndrome for his kidnappers, just as the audience of CPH’s show never quite feel total sympathy towards the characters on stage.
Despite the constant threat of being turned over to a violent terrorist group known for its beheadings, Nick only appears to be in imminent danger during two brief moments in the show. This creates a severe lack of intensity for the majority of the first act.
Max Woertendyke plays Nick with a sort of self-confidence that feels out of place. He bosses around Bashir and speaks back at Imam Saleem with an air of authority that is unfitting of a prisoner pleading for his life. With the exception of the later end of act two, Woertendyke’s tone is often too confident and commanding. One of the few moments the audience feels really empathetic toward Nick is when he records a message to his family back home. Overall, Nick’s lack of trepidation toward his captors transfers to the audience, who are equally as nonplussed by the should-be-intimidating characters.
This unfortunate lack of intimidation is also due to Louis Sallan’s portrayal of Bashir. Sallan’s physical build isn’t exactly daunting, but his execution of small physical bouts that are not believable in the slightest certainly doesn’t help his cause.
On the other end of the spectrum is J. Paul Nicholas as Imam Saleem and Nik Sadhnani as the jail guard, Dar. Nicholas has a powerful voice and presence that labels him as the clear leader of the terrorist organization. Sadhnani’s Dar begins meek but transforms into a solid and intense figure. The issue here is that Dar, the least featured role on stage, goes through one of the largest character arcs while Nick remains largely unchanged.
Shortcomings of the show also fall to the script, where so much of the dialogue feels like a lecture in finance. While Nick extensively educates on the workings of the stock market and Bashir reads off lists of dropping stocks, all breath that the audience might have been holding is unceremoniously exhaled. The show also suffers from an abrupt and anti-climactic ending.
But there is information to be gained during these lecture-like moments. Akhtar provides intriguing commentary on the distribution of wealth and the corrupting qualities of money. Nick and Bashir discuss the dollar and the power it has over every other currency, noting how America has flexed their dominance over so many other countries. Sallan shines during these moments of passion regarding what Bashir considers an unfair distribution of power.
Staged in runway fashion in the Outcalt Theatre, scenic designer Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams’ set design is originally hidden from the audience by a curtain. When the show begins and the curtain retracts, a single concrete room with a desk and two chairs is revealed. One wall houses the only entrance to the solitary while the other features a barred window. The room appears overly spacious for a cell, which could be due to the tall walls and high hanging ceiling fans — had they been lower, it would have given the room a more prison-like feel.
Macadams’ set is simple, making small details that may catch the eye especially important. While the furniture is finely made, there appears to be no backing behind the window save for a gray wall. And during the second act, papers plastered on both ends of the room are duplicates of one another, the only difference lying in their arrangement.
“The Invisible Hand” requires many black outs to symbolize the passing of time, rendering the show a bit choppy in its continuity. This is especially true during one disengaging moment when the curtain is pulled for a change of furniture. During these pauses, interesting music by sound designer Daniel Perelstein fills the theater. While Perelstein’s sounds such as the hum of drones or the barking of dogs is well done, the music between scenes is sudden and uncomfortably loud.
Michael Boll’s lighting design is justifiably harsh during the day but during night scenes, the shadows created through the window are beautiful. Valérie Thérése Bart’s costume design wonderfully demonstrates the social standing of each character.
As the stakes raise — and not just the stakes in the stock market — act two proves more entertaining than act one. But just as the invisible hand that draws theatergoers into a theatrical production begins to get a grip on the audience, the pressure is released, and actors emerge for curtain call.
WHERE: Cleveland Play House, Outcalt Theatre, 1501 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through March 11
TICKETS & INFO: $25 – $105, call 216-241-6000 or go to clevelandplayhouse.com
Photo caption: Max Woertendyke as Nick Bright. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.