When your first play to reach New York wins a Pulitzer, can things only go downhill from there? After seeing Ayad Akhtar’s gripping new thriller, now in previews at New York Theatre Workshop, I can report that, in his case, the answer is an emphatic “No.” Nick Bright (Justin Kirk) is a mid-level American banker who has been erroneously kidnapped by a militant group in Pakistan. They were after his boss, but he was filling in for him that day. The huge ransom they are demanding is far more than the bank thinks he is worth, so he is stuck in captivity. His captor is the volatile Bashir (Usman Ally), British born and raised, who left England to fight in Pakistan where he has become a follower of the charismatic Imam Saleem (Dariush Kashani). Nick has befriended his guard Dar (Jameal Ali) and even taught him some rudimentary economics that yield a bit of extra income. When it becomes clear that the bank will never pay his ransom, Nick suggests raising the amount himself by some tricky trading using an offshore account of his. Bashar initially objects, but the imam agrees. Since they will not allow him near a computer, Nick has to teach Bashir how to make the trades. Bashir proves to be an able student. The twists and turns that follow kept me on the edge of my seat. Who knew that high finance could be so dramatic? The play is not only exciting but so topical it could be ripped from today’s headlines. Akhtar provides insight into what turns a British Muslim into a militant, how militant groups are becoming more sophisticated about fundraising and how American influence can be both beneficent and corrupting. While the entire cast is strong, Ally’s Bashir is absolutely mesmerizing; I defy you to take your eyes off of him. Director Ken Rus Schmoll has paced the action skillfully. Riccardo Hernandez’s scenic design, featuring lots of corrugated metal and fluorescent lighting that extends over the audience, is effective, as are ESOSA’s costumes. This was a highlight of my theatergoing for 2014. Running time: 2 hours including intermission.