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Milwaukee Rep's 'Invisible Hand' questions the morality of capitalism

Last year, the Milwaukee Rep announced a singular partnership with playwright Ayad Akhtar, a Milwaukee native who’d since made it big both on stage and in other written media. The four-year collaboration will see the Rep producing three of Akhtar’s plays, including his Pulitzer Prize-winner Disgraced, followed by a world premiere commission in the final year.

If the first of these plays, The Invisible Hand, is any indication, it’s going to be a great four years for Rep patrons. Akhtar’s thriller about an American banker kidnapped by militants in Pakistan is a gripping work in and of itself, but its true success comes from the way it challenges the assumed benevolence of capitalism using the language of the marketplace itself.

Technically, no economics primer is necessary before walking into this production — Akhtar places just the right amount of exposition in the mouth of captured American Nick Bright (Tom Coiner) to get even the most financially illiterate viewer through the show.

But it certainly can’t hurt to know in advance that the play’s title references the core belief that guides Nick and every mainstream Western economist and financier. The “invisible hand,” a term coined by 18th-century Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, is the moral justification for having a free market, capitalist system, like that of the United States and other Western nations. It argues that a free market tends toward benevolence because individuals will act in their own self-interest and counter others’ attempts to unfairly profit.

The problem, as the play quickly makes apparent, is that those who know how to play the game have an advantage over those who don’t. The militants who have captured Nick — Imam Saleem (Tony Mirrcandani), his lieutenant Bashir (Shalin Agarwai) and grunt Dar (Owais Ahmed) — are all dedicated to fighting the corrupt Western imperialists, but they’re outgunned on both a military and financial level.

Nick changes that. When the U.S. government formally declares Imam Saleem a terrorist — making it impossible for them or Nick’s family to negotiate a ransom for his release — the only option remaining is for Saleem to trade Nick to the fundamentalist group responsible for the death of Americans including Daniel Pearl, who will kill him as propaganda. Nick offers an alternative: With his knowledge of the global and local markets, Nick will teach Bashir how to make millions buying and selling financial securities.

Nick (Tom Coiner, left) and Bashir (Shalin Agarwal) share a complicated prisoner-captor/teacher-mentor relationship in "The Invisible Hand." Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Nick (Tom Coiner, left) and Bashir (Shalin Agarwal) share a complicated prisoner-captor/teacher-student relationship in "The Invisible Hand." Photo by Michael Brosilow.

This sounds dry, but never becomes so on stage — largely due to the high-speed, high-stakes nature of the game Nick and Bashir are playing. At one point, the teacher describes the method to his trainee as gambling on the marketplace, betting that a company’s fortunes will rise, or fall, and buying and selling accordingly. As we watch the two of them place their bets, the tension does begin to resemble a Vegas casino as much as a claustrophobic Pakistani prison cell — albeit one where failure will result in the loss of millions of dollars and Nick’s life.

Coiner and Agarwai carry the bulk of the production, their characters a curious and volatile mix of friends, rivals and mortal enemies. At first, this is a sustainable equilibrium — Nick has all the knowledge and Bashir all the power. But the more Bashir learns, the more dangerous and unstable he becomes, with his religious beliefs warring with his new capitalist understandings. It’s a dissonance Agarwai wears well. Every moment he’s on stage, he commands attention, and it’s never clear what he’s going to do next.

Interestingly, The Invisible Hand doesn’t show Nick adopting a similar uncertainty. True to form, from the moment the play starts, every action he takes is in his own self-interest: he agrees to play the markets to save his life, chips away at the bricks and mortar of his cell to try and make his own escape, remains silent and focused on self-preservation when his captors begin to grow suspicious of each other. But this time, Nick doesn’t have the Western luxury of being removed by class and distance from the consequences of those actions — ones that will eventually be countered, as his theory of the invisible hand promises, but lead to violent instability in the interim.

The Invisible Hand is almost a parable in this way, explaining the moral ambiguity of capitalism and the free market through the use of a vivid, captivating narrative. But it’s a parable that haunts long after you leave the theater — because if the only way to defeat a morally bankrupt society is to use its own weapons against it, that may not be a victory at all.

The Milwaukee Rep’s production of The Invisible Hand runs through April 3 in the Stiemke Studio, 108 E. Wells St. Tickets start at $20 and can be ordered at 414-224-9490 or milwaukeerep.com.

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