Story: Nick is a second-tier American investment banker being held hostage by Islamic militants somewhere outside Karachi, Pakistan. Ironically, his captors believed that he was more ‘important’ to his employer, but now they’re stuck with him. So, Bashir, his primary captor contact, decides a $10 million ransom must be paid, even though Nick says he can only come up with $3 million.

How to reconcile the difference? Easy, says the desperate Nick. If Bashir will give him access to the tools he needs, such as financial newspapers, a computer and access to the stock exchange, Nick will parlay the $3 million into $10 million from his remote locale in exchange for his freedom. Bashir eventually agrees, but only after insisting that Nick tutor the London-educated Pakistani in the finer points of stock trading. Nick reluctantly complies, setting in motion events that he hadn’t foreseen.

Highlights: A one-act, 90-minute thriller written by prolific and multiple award-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar, The Invisible Hand officially christens the inaugural edition of The Rep’s ‘Ignite!’ new play festival in exemplary fashion. Taut, riveting, intense, complex and clever, The Invisible Hand moves at the brisk pace you’d expect from a playwright who also is an accomplished writer for the silver screen. Rep associate artistic director Seth Gordon, who is nurturing the inaugural efforts of ‘Ignite!,’ directs this accomplished production with a smooth, succinct style that focuses squarely on the story and its two primary characters.

Other Info: Gordon shrewdly utilizes supportive elements such as Mark Wilson’s video projections of a stock ticker or blurry images of Nick to underscore the plot rather than overwhelm it. Rusty Wandall’s sound design is a flavorful rendering of Middle Eastern musical motifs that sets the initial mood, while Scott Neale’s scenic design effectively conveys two separate cells for Nick. The former is a makeshift place awash in drab features, including a bare light bulb, a functional table and the scrawniest of cots that is positioned under a tiny, barred window, while the latter incorporates an abandoned school room where Nick can use a blackboard to etch his financial thoughts.

Lou Bird’s costumes convey the frightening appearance of the captors and the deceptively casual attire of the American, and Ann Wrightson’s lighting steadily emphasizes the harsh conditions. Grisly, realistic fight scenes are expertly choreographed by Brian Peters, Emily Frei contributes several nice touches with her props and dialect coach Sigrid Sutter shows a fine touch with Bashir’s lower-class English accent.

The claustrophobic confines of the cells require considerable abilities on the part of the players to breathe life into the situation, something which all four performers accomplish splendidly. Most impressive is Bhavesh Patel as Bashir, albeit he certainly has the best role. It’s fascinating to watch Patel beguile and charm his captive at one moment and then brutally assault his subordinate with shocking and sudden cruelty. Patel’s Bashir is intelligent, witty and purposeful as well as determined to make his mark in global politics, where he notes that “he who controls the currency controls the world.”

John Hickok also is compelling in the role of Nick. Both an ugly American and a stranger in a strange land, Nick works fervently to make sufficient profit on his ransom to free himself, calmly telling the increasingly agitated Bashir that “the laws of economics are guided by an invisible hand,” and that the self-discipline of bulls and bears is wiser than the greed of pigs in the market. Hickok’s breakdown about his situation and the intense longing for his wife and daughter is especially poignant.

Ahmed Hassan and Michael James Reed sandwich the core portrayals with fine renderings of a Pakistani militant and an American rescuer, with respectively, with Reed doubling as a mute guard in several scenes.

Gordon, who directed the Arabic premiere of Our Town in Cairo a few years ago, and Akhtar, who already has two world premieres in 2012, collaborate beautifully in this rhythmically riveting presentation that is likely destined for more performances elsewhere. Ignite! is off to an incendiary start.

Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.

Play:                The Invisible Hand

Group:             Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Venue:             Emerson Studio Theatre, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road

Dates:              Through March 25

Tickets:            $45-$58; contact 968-4925 or

                        Photos courtesy of Jerry Naunheim Jr.