Early on in Sakina's Restaurant at the Minetta Lane Theatre, Aasif Mandvi - both author and sole actor - is a narrator, Azgi, who is a recent arrival to America from India. Soon after he gets here he tells us, I have found that in America, if you just smile and nod your head, and say "yes, yes, yes, you are absolutely right" people love you! This is pretty much how this play is structured. There is a lot of yes, yes, yes as we empathize with these characters' journeys. There is not, however, some specific element that ties them all together, other than their heritage.
Azgi has been sponsored by Hakim and his wife Farrida who own a restaurant in the East Village. This play was written 20 years ago when the East Village was not as we know it today. Farrida has memories of being a dancer and is sad that her present will not bestow dreams come true on her - for her daughter Sakina, yes, but not for the parents scratching out a living.
Azgi is subject to his own frustrations as a waiter dealing with stupid customers and a chef who is unresponsive until he is used too far.
Every night I have the same dream. I am a giant tandoori chicken wearing an Armani suit. I am sitting behind the wheel of a speeding Cadillac. I have no eyes to see, no mouth to speak, and I don't know where I am going.
All of the adults share this inner struggle. And as Sakina grows up she crosses the border into that territory as well. She may be a new immigrant but she is also part of a population that believes in arranged marriages. So as much as she is crazy about her ex-boyfriend Tom, who thought she was Iranian, she is forced to marry a sincere man, Ali, who she hardly knows. This, I think, is Mandvi's center as a story teller, but we are not allowed to dally there too long. Instead we are whirled into more sadness and disappointment which, it turns out, has affected the groom as well as Sakina's little brother Samir.
There are several extraordinary Indian myths woven in - intended to tell us what is going on. Beautiful but jarring. As the evening comes to a close we are given slices of each character's tale of sorrow. Each one can sum up the disappointment of life with one sentence. Translation - no one has gotten the life they thought they would have. And they suspect they never will.
There is not a glimmer of hope to be had. Although Mandvi is a mercurial actor, sincere and in possession of a kind of innocence that you cannot fake, he never transcends the sadness of the material. Not only that but he makes the cardinal error of repeating the lines of the unseen characters so that we can understand what is going on. This is a fantastically unnecessary element. We are New Yorkers. We are used to eavesdropping. We are ready to risk the results.
What we don't like is to be hauled down to the basement of life and left there in the dark.
(Photo by Lisa Berg)
What the popular press says...
"Mr. Mandvi, the versatile writer and actor best known for his nearly 10 years as a correspondent on “The Daily Show,” has just brought back his solo comedy 20 years after its premiere. And at its funniest, which is often also its most uncomfortable, it has gained a new resonance."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Times
"Sakina's Restaurant is a succession of thin slices of life, and although the action is ostensibly seen through Azgi's eyes, we barely get to know him. The play is more nostalgic than resonant: a bittersweet '90s period piece about a less xenophobic time, when the children of immigrants were more worried about things like arranged marriages than about forced separation and deportation."
Raven Snook for Time Out New York
"Nothing in the decade that the British-American comedian Aasif Mandvi spent on “The Daily Show” will prepare you for his astonishing performance in Sakina’s Restaurant, the one-man show that opened Sunday at Off Broadway’s Audible Theater at Minetta Lane Theatre. Over the course of 90 intermissionless minutes, the Mumbai-born performer seamlessly transitions into a half dozen different Indian American characters before our eyes, giving each a unique posture and vocal inflection that summons their individual personalities before our eyes."
Thom Geier for The Wrap
"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."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
External links to full reviews from popular press...