Theatre Exile’s production of THE INVISIBLE HAND features an all-star creative team, including director Matt Pfeiffer and actors Ian Peakes as Nick Bright, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Bashir, and Anthony Mustafa Adair as Dar. Henrik Eger conducted interviews with all four. First we hear Matt Pfeiffer’s thoughts on this provocative new work. [Studio X, 1340 S. 13th Street] May 12-June 5, 2016; theatreexile.org.
Henrik Eger: What was your first response reading the script of The Invisible Hand?
Matt Pfeiffer: I saw the play before I read it. In performance, I was blown away by how smart and provocative the storytelling was. It reminded me of the Mamet plays I’d directed for Exile—American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross. It’s a heist story, but buried within it are probing moral questions and a critical examination of the evils of money.
Henrik: What did you bring to this challenging play as a director?
Matt: I started out as an actor, so my work as a director has always been about performances. I’m driven by actors. So when you come upon a 4-character play, in a very small setting, the power of the play rests on the nuanced psychology of the performers. And that is what I get most excited about as a director. Working with actors to bring a deep level of psychology and emotional truth to the stage
Henrik: Going into the rehearsal process, what were the toughest parts for you?
Matt: I was nervous about portraying Muslim men in a cliché fashion. When you meet these characters they are, for all intents and purposes, the kind of cliché you see in most popular fiction: “Muslim extremist carrying a gun.” But I knew that there was more to the characters and that the playwright was doing something more dimensional and nuanced than that. I wanted to make sure that I had a full understanding of where these characters were coming from. I spoke with scholars at Penn [University of Pennsylvania] from Pakistan. I made sure that I had very open communication with the actors about their characters and how they felt about them. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t being ignorant about who these men were.
There’s no question [playwright] Ayad [Akhtar] is asking provocative questions about Pakistan and the west; they are very smart and observant questions. I wanted to make sure I ask those questions purposely.
Henrik: What did you bring to a play in which cultures, economies, religions, worldviews, and personalities clash in terms of your own cultural, economic, religious, ideological, and/or behavioral background?
Matt: I don’t know that my perspective is unique. But I certainly don’t want to live in a world of absolutes. I think many questions of moral conscience live in areas of gray. So I hope as a theater artist, I work on material that allows audiences to ponder both sides of the equation. That is important to me. It’s why I would do this play.
Henrik: Looking back, what are some of the most rewarding parts of the play for you now?
Matt: Getting a chance to work with this cast. They were fearless in their approach. They were very open with each other and asked great questions of the play and the process. Fortunately for me, a lot of my creative experience is fueled by this. But it doesn’t make it any less rewarding, when you come upon such fierce talent and are able to help focus that talent into truly unique performance
Henrik: What surprised you about the play and/or your own evolution during the rehearsal process and the performances?
Matt: I was mostly surprised by how brilliant I continued to find the play. Ayad is a remarkable playwright. And there are subtleties and nuances that emerge over the course of rehearsal that were startling. Little things that I don’t want to give away, but little choices, small gestures, that I found really rewarding.
Henrik: Do you have a sense that audiences and theatre critics relate to the complexity of this play?
Matt: I think audiences and critics are responding to the play in full. Most of the conversations I’ve had with audience members or what I’ve seen from critics have been very considered and responsive to what Ayad is doing.
Henrik: Given the heated pre-election climate in the U.S., what effect do you think this play could have on U.S. voters?
Matt: I think this play suggests the world is far more complicated than much of the approach we’ve seen in this election climate. There’s no such thing as a catchall slogan to answer all of our problems. There are two sides to every issue. In the play, for example, the examination of America’s influence, financially, on the rest of the world, is pretty indicting. It’s hard for me to hear an argument that Muslims should be “banned”—without any examination—of our role, in the state of affairs in the Muslim world.
Henrik: What is the invisible hand that drives you in your life as a director and a mensch?
Matt: I think the world is a marvelous and wondrous place. I hope every day I wake up, I contribute to the ongoing conversation about who we are and where we’re headed. Sometimes you get to do plays like the Invisible Hand that are provocative. Sometimes you just got to make people laugh, and appreciate how good life can be. But either way, my driving force, is to hope that I’m offering something worthwhile to my fellow person.
Henrik: Matt, is there anything else you would like to share?
Matt: Thanks for having this conversation.
[Studio X, 1340 S. 13th Street] May 12-June 5, 2016; theatreexile.org.