"What's sacred to you?"
Ayad Akhtar's new play is a sly devil. From its opening moments in a
windowless cement block cell, you may think this is a play about torture
or jihadists or the precarious tinderbox of Pakistan
today. But surprisingly the play takes its setting and set-up in an
unexpected direction. Focusing instead on the role money plays in modern
politics, terrorism, and the politics of capitalism.
Nick Bright (Justin Kirk) is a Citibank banker working in Pakistan. He was mistakenly kidnapped
by men who answer to a powerful imam (Dariush Kashani). He's being held for
ransom. Nick tries to bargain his way to safety. He argues that he can
make the ransom funds they are seeking if he's allowed access to some
capital to trade on. The imam instructs hot-head Bashir (Usman Ally) to learn the business of trading and banking from Nick to benefit their cause.
Bashir has a chip on his shoulder but eventually sees Nick has skills.
They talk politics, ideals, and money. Soon they both learn how those
On one level this play felt like a spiritual cousin to J.T. Rogers
powerful play Blood and Gifts that ran back in 2011. That play was
focused on how the US and British governments and their covert
operations functioned in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1980's. Here
Akhtar seems to be taking the conversation to its next natural chapter-- how private interests, specifically banks, profit off of destabilized
countries around the world and how our interests have evolved in that region.
But what makes Akhtar's play really work is that he takes these big
ideas and then converts them into these incredibly nuanced and human
characters. A banker who you can't totally hate because he's a hostage and a man cut off from his family.
And a hostage-taker who's got these principles and ideals for helping
people. We know enough about both men and the lives that came before
this moment that we cannot easily dismiss them. I found this impressive
with Akhtar's Disgraced as well. With fulsome characters, even when they spout
hate and vitriol, it's harder to sweep them under the rug of "evil."
Instead, we must wrestle with our feelings about them--the good, the bad,
and the ugly. These characters are also not fixed mouth-pieces for one cause or another.
Nick and Bashir grow to like each other and it is in that friendship, understanding, or intellectual respect that it becomes harder to handle the difficult situation they are both in. They also change because of their relationship. Akhtar shows us the butterfly effect on two levels--first on this global-political world stage, but second the small influences we have over each other and how personal interactions can change the way we see the world. Kirk and Ally embody these characters well. But for me Ally is the big discovery here. He conveys fear, anger, affection, and righteousness in equal measure and it's hard to watch his character's journey and what feels like the few steps from thought to action.
Also the play and these themes benefit greatly from Riccardo Hernandez's set and the transformation of that set.