Ventriloquising media-vilified terrorists could turn any author mealy-mouthed. Dave Eggers stumbled with his non-fiction book Zeitoun, which eulogised a New Orleans man whose wife has now spoken out over his violent stalking of her and her child. Here, Ayad Akhtar’s patchier follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced in 2012 moves the scene from a bourgeois dinner party to the stonier creative ground of a compound in Pakistan where the American banker Nick is being held hostage by a group of religious idealists.
Akhtar's play has been characterised as “a play about terrorism”, but it's really all about money. Its horribly smarmy Imam-turned-captor (Dariush Kashani) wheedles out of Nick that his god is the US dollar, and the play is a half-involuntary lovesong to the power of the stockmarkets Nick must use to win his ransom. Post-recession, having a banker as a hero is brave – and Justin Kirk’s unnuanced, energetic Nick can't quite be described otherwise. Akhtar might be subtly satirising Nick, but the audience seems to be a little in love with this pedantic everyman poet of US financial and foreign affairs. The biggest (comfortable) laugh comes when Nick cites the so-called “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention”; no two countries with McDonald's have ever fought a war against each other. Akhtar's text declines to let his Pakistani characters point out that there are McDonald's in Pakistan.
Nick's helpmeet on his mission to invest his way to freedom is his guard Bashir. He’s written as a thesaurus Londoner – he says he is “banjoed, arsed” to mean drunk – but Usman Ally’s perfectly-accented performance has a Hounslow sharpness and insecure edge. Frustrated with Nick’s refusal to show his workings, he hunts down his doctoral thesis on Lexis Nexus to discover that the dollar was the “security” that post-war Europe was built around. He’s sick of of fighting in Islamic State, and in his most eloquent moments he explains his new organisation’s dreams of buying vaccines and medical supplies to undo the damage of decades of fiscal colonialism.
Bashir and Nick work and argue in uneasy collaboration in a single cell, but director Ken Rus Schmell doesn’t tie their punchy scenes closely enough to exploit this play’s potential for intense claustrophobia. There are surprises, but not shocks, as the mood darkens. Riccardo Hernandez’s design doesn’t help, emphasising the theatre’s high redbrick lines with corrugated iron. The cell’s ceiling is winched up after the interval in an outbreak of theatrics that undermines the heavy-duty naturalism that’s aspired to here.
The most satisfying element of the piece is Akhtar’s characterisation of the unseen Pakistan outside. Nick’s captors – simple, potato-trading Dar is the third – grumble about the mundanities of potato farming, roads with vast pot-holes, and the bigger lacunae in their corrupt governments’ oversight. Everyone’s scheming to get ahead from Dar’s potato trading plan to the Imam’s corrupt house-buying. In a neat parallel, Nick explains that the title’s “invisible hand” is self interest, which he interprets uncritically as a force that guides and regulates the market.
Akhtar’s abrupt conclusion to the play is guided by this invisible hand, its imaginative grip unshaken by pre-recessionary excesses. Following his exploration of wordier, messier ways of seeing the world, it comes like one of the captor’s violent outbursts at Nick after days of mutual understanding: a frustrating return to a simpler kind of language.