Steep Theatre’s The Invisible Hand: Greed and Violence in a Pakistan Prison Cell

Reitsma and Ahmed. Photo by Lee Miller.

The invisible hand in Steep Theatre’s new play does not refer to terrorism or ghostly acts of murder. Steep gives us a clue by including a quotation from Adam Smith’s classic work, The Wealth of Nations, in the playbill.

The phrase refers to the economic theory that when a market operates freely, individuals will operate in their own self-interest to promote the general benefit of society as a whole. This mutual interdependence is like an invisible hand guiding the economy.

The Invisible Hand, Ayad Akhtar’s gripping new play, is the story of Nick Bright (Joel Reitsma), a Princeton-educated American banker held hostage somewhere in Pakistan. The time is sometime after Osama Bin Laden’s capture and Daniel Pearl’s beheading. The theme is not so much torture and pain, although there’s plenty of that. No, the theme is the universal nature of greed.

Nick’s captors have put a ransom on his head, but when they learn about his skills in global money markets, they decide he can work off his ransom by helping them generate revenue to help their community. The Pakistanis seem to have their own community’s interests in mind. They want to ensure clean water and irrigation for their crops, better schools and hospitals, and full employment.

Abdelfattah, Ahmed and Reitsma. Photo by Gregg Gilman.

Nick is to teach Bashir (Owais Ahmed) to navigate the global markets. Nick made $20 million for a Punjab company by creating futures to trade wheat. The holy man, Imam Saleem (Bassam Adbelfattah), wants him to do the same thing for their community, only much faster. Dar (Anand Bhatt), the junior jailor, also has learned some economic basics from Nick, which enables him to make money buying and selling potatoes.

Nick is not allowed to touch the computer but he teaches Bashir his way around online markets, economic theory, data charts and information sources. Bashir, a British native with a working-class accent, is a fast learner. Their collaboration is successful and Nick’s ransom account grows. But some of that money is siphoned off for other purposes. Ultimately, roles and tables are turned.

The four actors who make up this strong cast, smoothly directed by Audrey Francis, are all superb. Reitsma and Ahmed are a powerful team, creating a tense game of colleagues turning into enemies and back again. Sitting close to the action, as you do in this 52-seat venue, enhances the intensity of the story.

Ashley Ann Woods’ design creates a claustrophobic prison cell furnished with a cot, a table, two chairs and a bucket. Thomas Dixon’s sound design—including the constant thrum of drones and an occasional bomb—and original music raise the threat level, especially in the first act. Rachel Sypniewski’s costumes dress the three captors in authentic-looking military and religious costumes.

Akhtar won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2013 for his play, Disgraced, which explores faith and identity politics from a U.S. point of view. Disgraced had its world premiere at American Theater Company in 2012 and a Goodman Theatre production in 2015.

The Invisible Hand has been extended through November 18 at Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn, with performances Thursday-Sunday. Running time is 2 hours, 15 minutes, with one intermission. Buy tickets for $27-38.

Nancy S Bishop
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.