Ayad Akhtar's follow-the-money hostage drama "The Invisible Hand" continues to strike Connecticut theatergoers.
The play had a successful production at the Westport Country Playhouse in the summer of 2016. The staging by WCP Associate Artistic Director David Kennedy so impressed TheaterWorks Producing Artistic Director Rob Ruggiero that Kennedy was asked to remount it at TheaterWorks, which had been looking to do an Akhtar play for a while.
Three of the Westport production's four actors are returning for the remount. Eric Bryant will once again play the kidnapped American investment banker Nick Bright. Rajesh Bose will again play his captor Imam Saleem. Fajer Kaisi returns as Bashir, who assists Nick as the banker and is forced to raise his own exorbitant $10 million ransom by manipulating global markets on a laptop from his cell.
Bryant is the only performer who has worked previously at TheaterWorks. He was in the John Cariani romance anthology "Almost, Maine" in 2013.
The TheaterWorks rendition of "The Invisible Hand" will have set designer Kristen Robinson referencing Adam Riggs Westport design and new costumes by Harry Nadal. Lighting designer Matthew Richards and sound designer Fitz Patton have been retained from the Westport production.
The Courant’s review of “The Invisible Hand” at the Westport Playhouse called the play “a drama of social and cultural differences, played out on an intense level. It's also the scariest lecture on international finance you'll ever attend.”
Remounting the show "requires being willing to rethink how the space works,” Kennedy says during a phone interview earlier this month. He ticks off the many differences between the two theaters, from the stage area (TheaterWorks is a modified thrust while Westport is a proscenium) to the auditorium (TheaterWorks’ seats are on an angled surface while Westport’s pew-like arrangement is on a flat floor.) “It’s trickier than I imagined.”
Add to this that Kennedy has never remounted a show before and seldom has even directed the same play twice.
“Strangely, though,” he says, “this is my year of doing two plays for the second time each." At Wesport in August, he’ll be directing a new production of Theresa Rebeck’s "The Understudy," which he first directed for the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia nearly eight years ago.
With “The Invisible Hand,” the director says, “it’s the proverbial lightning in a bottle. We don’t want to give it a new look or a new perspective. The challenge for us is, how do preserve the essential feel of the show?”
At the same time that he wants to re-create the original emotional charge that “The Invisible Hand” had in Westport, Kennedy is adamant that he’s not making this “a museum piece. For one thing, it’s been nearly two years since the actors last performed this. We're making emotional connections we might not have made before. This is not about just nailing the line readings they did before."
It helps that the script does not feel dated, even though it has been around in various forms for six years now. “The Invisible Hand” was first staged as a one-act play at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in Missouri in 2012. It was expanded into a full-length drama and was seen in 2014 at Seattle, Washington's A Contemporary Theatre and at New York Theatre Workshop in New York City. There have been other regional productions besides Westport’s, but during the past few years another Akhtar play, “Disgraced" has been more frequently produced than "The Invisible Hand." (New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre staged "Disgraced" in 2015.)
Kennedy remembers the "Invisible Hand" script being "brought to the table for a season selection meeting back in the fall of 2014 or the winter of 2015. I had not seen it in New York. I had read it and was immediately taken with it. I thought I knew where the plot was going, but it takes these remarkable twists and turns. There's a discussion of economic systems as well as American colonialism, yet it's not telling you what to think.”
"It's political without needing to be topical. Akhtar avoided topicality. He's talking about something much grander. This play could be done years from now."
One thing that has changed since "The Invisible Hand" was last seen in Connecticut, Kennedy notes, is the election of Donald Trump.
"He takes up so much air in the room that it's hard to imagine him not coming up as the subject of conversation in this play. You kind of have to imagine that the play takes place in a pre-Trump world. But the relevance remains."
That theater audiences in both Westport and Hartford may contain a lot of people who work in international finance or other industries that are touched upon in the play "was quite irresistible, I must confess," Kennedy says.
Scaling the production's single prison-cell down for the "smaller, more compact" TheaterWorks stage will add intimacy, Kennedy says. "It's going to feel a little more like we're inside that room."
Chicago-based actor Anand Bhatt is the sole new member of "The Invisible Hand" cast. He played the same role, of the unquestioning helper Dar, at the Steep Theatre in Chicago in December.
"I was auditioning for 'Invisible Hand' in other states," Bhatt says during a phone interview last week. "The play is so popular at the moment." Despite having the script fresh in his mind, doing it elsewhere "is a whole different world. It's different for me — my actions, walking around the stage..."
Bhatt has great admiration for Akhtar's play.
"He is an amazing writer. The stories are written nicely and they're witty as well. I like dramas, but I don't like dramas where there is no punchline as well." He likens the playwright's work to another Muslim-themed theater project he just took part in: "The Merchant on Venice," Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" reset as a Hindu/Muslim conflict. "That was also very dark, but with fun moments as well."
The actors have been rehearsing in Hartford for the past few weeks. It's Bhatt's first time on the East Coast.
"TheaterWorks has set the bar very high. I love the people, I love the energy. I saw 'The Legend of Georgia McBride' and it was amazing. TheaterWorks has this very big subscriber base, and there's a reason for that. They're very passionate about what they do. I can't wait to see how their audience will react to 'Invisible Hand.' It’s such a smart play."
THE INVISIBLE HAND by Ayad Akhtar, directed by David Kennedy, runs May 24 through June 23 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $45 to $70. 860-527-7838 and theaterworkshartford.org.