Ayad Akhtar’s “The Invisible Hand” is a terrific political thriller about a topic you’d expect to see more often onstage: money. Capital is where the action is; it’s why an investment banker named Nick has been captured in Pakistan. He’ll be freed when he raises $10 million.
That’s the taut setup of Akhtar’s intelligent four-character jail-cell drama, which couldn’t be acted much better in Michael Bloom’s staging in the Olney Theatre Center’s intimate black-box space. Nick can raise the money; he’s a Citibank whiz. But he needs Internet access and working capital, and he’ll need to instruct Bashir, his wary captor, about the patterns of markets.
This is drama for the “Homeland” and “The Big Short” crowd, and for audiences who admired Akhtar’s Pulitzer-winning “Disgraced” and the light, sharp touch of his “The Who and the What.” “The Invisible Hand” was written in the same flurry as those plays and as his novel “American Dervish,” and like each of those works, it crackles with purpose.
For actors, it’s fabulous — tense with perpetually simmering conflict, rich with character that’s both individual and geopolitical. Thomas Keegan delivers one of his finest performances as Nick, convincingly spitting out figures and investment strategies while also freaking out at the horrors of incarceration. (Luciana Stecconi’s cement-gray walls and lone steel door bluntly render the scene.)
As Bashir, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh purposefully sounds Pakistani by way of London, and he blends the character’s defensive ego with a savvy streak. We hear with Bashir’s ears as Nick schools him in markets, and you can almost hear the brain and the blood whir as Bashir — who positions himself as a moderate terrorist, not the beheading kind — gets the adrenaline of money in him.
As befits this kind of thriller, the talk is sharp and fast and never far from menace. Mueen Jahan coolly plays the local imam who is Bashir’s superior, which he demonstrates at gunpoint, and Ahmad Kamal is thoroughly compelling as a menial jailer with keen eyes and ears. Power shifts, with religion and morality thick in the mix.
Akhtar rapidly catapulted himself to the forefront of politically fluent U.S. dramatists, and he excels at pitting varieties of righteousness against one another. Of course the captors have targeted an investment banker to reverse Western exploitation and put capitalism on trial, which leads to compelling moral arguments between Nick and Bashir. Inarguably, money is power. Is it ever in the right hands?
Akhtar is a realist, not a sentimentalist, and he is not prone to oversimplification in limning the differences between strands of American influence and strands of Pakistani Muslim response. His gift for dramatic, resonant endings does not fail him here.
The Invisible Hand by Ayad Akhtar. Directed by Michael Bloom. About two hours. Through June 10 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd. $49-$74. 301-924-3400 or olneytheatre.org.