12/09/2014 08:25 am ET Updated Feb 08, 2015

First Nighter: 'Send for the Million Men,' 'The Invisible Hand' Ripped From Headlines

Imagine: The Sacco-Vanzetti case as a 2014 play called Send for the Million Men, created and directed by Joseph Silovsky, as part of the HERE Artist Residency Program.

Just imagine: Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti remembered so explicitly almost a full century after the South Braintree, Massachusetts crime on April 15, 1920 for which they were arrested, tried, convicted and executed and as a result of which pleas, appeals and condemnations went on for the following decades, only to fade from public concern more recently.

At first thought, Send for the Million Men seems like a throwback enterprise -- especially as performed by Silovsky, Victor Morales and Catherine McRae (on violin and other instruments) in a decidedly low-low-tech demonstration.

On second thought, however, at a time when Tea Party proponents take pleasure in declaring Barack Obama a Socialist and the grand jury's Eric Garner decision has citizens across the country marching in the streets, the play is welcome. And yes, the still pressing Ferguson shooting instantly comes to mind, too. Send for the Million Men suddenly seems as timely as tomorrow morning's headlines.

The 90-minute undertaking is a call for justice when it's become shockingly clear that injustice looks to be a national scourge no less potent now than it was nine decades ago.

For those who haven't been as informed about the Jazz Age scandal as those born in the first half of the 20th century, some facts are necessary, all, or most, of them recounted by Silovsky and team as they go about opening old-fashioned valises (the kind without wheels and retractable handles) stacked around the wide HERE space and pulling from them innumerable helpful props.

On that spring day, a South Braintree paymaster and guard carrying $15,776.51 were shot and killed in a robbery. Within a short time, Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested, largely because the suspects were assumed to be Italian. Though they claimed their innocence and were identified by witnesses whose testimonies were porous, and though their case was stretched out for the next seven years and became a hideous cause celebre, their death sentences were ultimately carried out. They died in the electric chair August 23, 1927.

With the contents of those valises and the aid of mechanical figures, stuffed figures, wooden dolls, bullet facsimiles and you-name-it as well as excerpts from witness statements and remarks by Judge Webster Thayer, Silovsky and Morales--as McRae provides underscoring--don't so much build an argument for Sacco's and Vanzetti's innocence as reconstruct a pressing, sometimes even somberly humorous court depiction of it.

You could say the evidence once again presented is as convincing as the Eric Garner video shown the Staten Island grand jury. (Why it turned out not to be as convincing as it looked to the grand jury members will remain a public mystery.) You could also say it's as convincing as the 1927 Atlantic Monthly essay Supreme Court Judge Felix Frankfurter published on Sacco and Vanzetti's behalf.

The small-budget urgency with which Silovsky operates--while wearing an ensemble featuring a ratty-looking red jersey as if proper dress isn't what's important at times like these--turns his sincere polemic into a first-rate theater piece.
Whether circumstances exist that approximate those Pulitzer Prize-winning Ayad Disgraced Akhtar incorporates in The Invisible Hand, at New York Theatre Workshop by special arrangement with Dasha Theatricals, I couldn't say--although perhaps I should be able to.

Whether yes or no, the play presents an ingenious spin on the political-prisoner drama unfortunately becoming more commonplace than anyone would want during a period when videos of beheadings can easily be accessed.

The man held captive--on Riccardo Hernandez's evocative, if surprisingly spacious set--is Nick Bright (Justin Kirk), a banker stationed in Pakistan, who claims he was mistakenly taken instead of the real target, his superior.

A Princeton graduate who majored in economics and certainly mastered his subject, Bright lives up to his surname when he plots a way to raise the $10 million his captors are demanding as ransom payment. Realizing that the sum won't eventuate form elsewhere, which could mean his facing dire consequences, Bright offers to play the stock market on his captors' behalf, relying on the invisible hand guiding the market to see him through.

Bright's keepers are initially the cruel Bashir (Usman Ally), the unpredictable Imam Saleem (Dariush Kashani) and the factotum Dar (Jameal Ali), who's first seen clipping Bright's fingernails but who eventually has occasion to put a pistol to Bright's head.

Although Bashir and Imam Saleem agree that once Bright raises the required sum, he will have earned his liberation, that promise is constantly in question and is the cause of the anxiety underpinning Akhtar's script. Not only are Bashir and Imam Saleem labile--sometimes turning on Bright without any apparent provocation--they're also not entirely in sympathy with each other.

In two of the playwright's best and most unsettling scenes, first Bashir and then Imam Saleem menace Bright with their diatribes against the United States. An irony of Saleem's contention that money remains the root of American evil is that he expresses it while Bright, often tied to a large concrete weight he must tug after him, is raking in the dollars with his shrewd manipulations.

Akhtar also want to score a few more points on the matter of Bright's strategy. In order to explain his approach, he discusses the status of the rupee and talks about its possible deterioration. (When he talks, he mentions familiar market terms like "shorting," "puts" and "calls" that it's helpful for spectators in know to follow the fast verbal exchanges.)

Bright's emphasis on the subject prompts Bashir to act in a disturbing manner, though it results in the needed millions materializing. When it does, however, cogent dramatic questions are raised about Bright's possible criminal participation in his release. The term "blood on hands" comes up more than once.

Directed with unflinching directness by Ken Rus Schmoll--with lighting design by Tyler Micoleau, sound design by Leah Gelpe and Esosa's costumes--the cast members hold nothing back as they go about their duties. The beatings Bright endures are frighteningly convincing (certainly thanks to Thomas Schall's fight direction). And I defy anyone not to flinch when the pistol is drawn on Bright.

That plays dealing with these situations look to be with us for the near and too worryingly far future is unfortunate. But if they must be, here's one that couldn't be more gripping.