'Sakina's Restaurant': Theater Review

Lisa Berg
Aasif Mandvi in 'Sakina's Restaurant'
More relevant than ever.
11/11/2018

Former 'Daily Show' correspondent Aasif Mandvi stars in a 20th anniversary revival of his Obie Award-winning one-person show about an Indian immigrant living in New York City.

Aasif Mandvi first performed his one-man play Sakina's Restaurant, about an East Indian immigrant, 20 years ago, and it now feels both timely and dated. Timely because its themes of immigrants aspiring to live the American Dream feels more relevant than ever. And dated because if it were set in the present day, its central character probably would never have been able to get here at all.

The writer-performer — who won an Obie Award for the original production and went on to a lengthy stint as a Daily Show correspondent — begins the proceedings by introducing himself as Agzi, who proudly announces, "I like hamburger, baseball and Mr. Bob Dylan." After making his first-ever airplane trip, Agzi is newly arrived in New York City, where he will be working in the restaurant that supplies the play's title for Hakim, the owner who sponsored his trip and agreed to put him up.

In the 80-minute piece, Mandvi plays not only Agzi, but also Hakim, his wife Farrida, their daughter Salina and son Samir, and Ali, Salina's betrothed in a marriage arranged by her parents. The characters deliver not so much monologues but rather dialogues in which we're privy only to their end of the conversation.

The play features several amusing episodes, such as when Agzi, working as a waiter, desperately attempts to dissuade a customer from ordering the highest level of spiciness for an entrée. "Don't take number 5, take number 2," Agzi implores. "Even in India, nobody asks for number 5! I am trying to save your life, OK?"

But the evening generally trades in more serious matters as it deals with issues of cultural dislocation and assimilation. Hakim rebels against adopting to American culture, while Farrida has abandoned her dream of becoming a dancer and settled into an unhappy life as a housewife. Salina thinks back about her former boyfriend, an American, who dated her for two months thinking she was Iranian. Ali, a committed Muslim wrestling with his attraction to a fellow medical student, an American woman, visits a prostitute shortly before his wedding. And Samir, who fully identifies as American, is mainly obsessed with his Gameboy.

Sakina's Restaurant is less notable for the writing, which feels fragmentary at times and fails to coalesce into a compelling whole, than for Mandvi's acting. His characterizations are quite memorable and the evening has many insightful and entertaining moments, including the allegorical stories occasionally told by Agzi.

The actor shifts effortlessly among the various characters, donning a dress to play Salina, investing his portrayals with memorable bits of physical business. A highlight is his frenzied miming of a teenage Salina French-kissing her boyfriend, after which she pulls something out of her mouth and asks, "Do you want your gum back?"

Director Kimberly Senior stages the evening in impeccable fashion (it was originally directed and developed by Kim Hughes), smoothing the fast-paced transitions and blasting period-appropriate pop songs between scenes. Wilson Chin's scenic design is far more lavish than the original, depicting the interior of a restaurant on the East Village's "Curry Row" in colorful detail.

The play's limited run is being presented by Audible; the company will be releasing the show in audio form sometime next year.

Venue: Minetta Lane Theatre, New York
Writer-performer: Aasif Mandvi
Director: Kimberly Senior
Set designer: Wilson Chin
Costume designer: Jen Caprio
Lighting designer: Mary Louise Geiger
Sound designer: Jill BC Du Boff
Presented by Audible