A little way into The Invisible Hand, staged this month as part of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' Studio Series, Ayad Akhtar's play seems like it's going to be about two men with different ideologies finding common ground — but not right from the beginning. At the onset, as Nick (John Hickok) is held hostage somewhere in Pakistan by Bashir (Bhavesh Patel), this one-act drama has all the markings of a Harrowing Survival Tale, with Bashir filling the role of Swaggering Bully Whose Specialty Is "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques" and Nick portraying the Committed Idealist/Terrified Victim.
A financial trader working for a Western bank, Nick is inadvertently rounded up by soldiers under the command of Bashir, a London-born and -educated Pakistani who abandoned the easy life in the West to join the mujahideen. Having kidnapped the wrong guy, Bashir resolves to make the most of it: He forces Nick to put his skills as a financial trader to use and raise his own ransom, set at $10 million. Because Bashir can't leave Nick alone with a computer, he mans the keyboard while Nick gives directions.
Confined in a remote stronghold with nothing to do but teach Bashir about modern finance — surely Nick will proceed to win over this once-Western man and convince him that the banks are there to help Pakistan enter the modern age. Under the hand of director Seth Gordon, Hickok finds Nick's center in the character's belief that he's a good guy, and that America is the world's good guy.
Accepting Nick as wide-eyed and utterly ignorant about what he does for a living is a hard pill to swallow. Not only is he completely in the dark about America's role in setting up the Afghanistani and Pakistani mujahideen — the facts of which have been common knowledge since shortly after 9/11 — apparently he has never run across a selfish or greedy banker, despite his line of work.
And that's precisely where Akhtar detonates The Invisible Hand's illusion of predictability: Just as Nick is the world's last virtuous banker, Bashir is its first moral terrorist.
Bhavesh Patel performs a slow-motion, reverse sleight-of-hand with Bashir, gradually revealing more of his character's humanity. Beneath the brutish armor, Bashir is both idealistic and well-informed, and he's the one who opens Nick's eyes, not vice versa. Bashir likens himself to those Romantics who fought in the Spanish Civil War, leaving their home countries to fight a just war. Not that he has any compunction about using violence, and the scale on which he does so is startling. Not two-atomic-bombs-in-a-week startling, but once you've glimpsed the man underneath the rhetoric, it's certainly shocking.
That's the greatest strength of The Invisible Hand. Captor and prisoner share with one another (and the audience) their core philosophy of the world, and in the play's dying moments one of them seems blinded by ideology, the other open-minded and adaptable, the model capitalist.