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'Invisible Hand' review: Ayad Akhtar's finance-driven drama is thoughtful, gripping

Usman Ally and Jameal Ali star in

Usman Ally and Jameal Ali star in "The Invisible Hand" by Ayad Akhktar, who wrote the Pulitzer-winning "Disgraced," at New York Theatre Workshop. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

In "Disgraced," the 2013 Pulitzer-winning drama now on Broadway, Ayad Akhtar turned cultural and religious triggerpoints into psychologically subtle yet explosive entertainment. Earlier this year, his second play in New York, "The Who & The What" added Islamic gender identity into the mix with comparable intelligence but less mature craftsmanship.

So it's a relief and a pleasure to report that "The Invisible Hand," expanded from a 2012 one-act into a satisfying two acts, confirms the Pakistani-American playwright as one of the theater's most original, exciting new voices.

In this tight, plot-driven thriller, Ahktar again turns hypersensitive subjects into thought-provoking and thoughtful drama. But here he also brings a grasp of money -- big money -- not to mention the market's unsettling connections to international politics.

Justin Kirk (the delightfully unpredictable brother in TV's "Weeds") is Nick, an American financial trader with a specialty in emerging markets. While working in Pakistan, he is mistaken for his Citibank boss, kidnapped by one of the more socially conscious groups and held for a highly improbable $10 million ransom.

We meet him in his small grim cell, which, as Nick's money-manipulating expertise becomes useful to his captors, transforms via flashy technology into a bigger grim cell. In a humanizing yet humiliating routine, an underling (Jameal Ali) trims the handcuffed prisoner's fingernails.

Nick's main keeper is Bashir (deftly played with a simultaneous scowl and a puppy-eagerness by Usman Ally) -- a London-born zealot who compares his Middle East mission to the youthful generation that came from everywhere to help the Spanish fight Franco in 1936. The leader is Imam Saleem (portrayed with surface grace and a low boiling point by Dariush Kashani), who buys Nick's plan to earn his ransom while teaching them how to trade currency.

In director Ken Rus Schmoll's fast-moving production, talk of futures and options feels as urgent as Akhtar's insight into the cash-flow affected by the death of Osama bin Laden and threats to trade Nick for beheading. Kirk, a gifted actor who always suggests he's thinking more than he says, is both devious and touchingly sincere about what he calls the intoxication of making money.

Ideals are tainted. Blood is spilled. And, once again, Akhtar makes gripping drama out of such an untheatrical virtue as profound evenhandedness.

WHERE New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. Fourth St.

INFO $75; 212-239-6200; nytw.org

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