Director Kimberly Senior engages the audience from the first beat of Sakina’s Restaurant, performed by its author, Aasif Mandvi, for the 20th-anniversary production of his Obie Award–winning play. Dispensing with the fourth wall, she introduces the central character, Azgi, carrying a suitcase in the aisle of the auditorium, and he lights up the space with his greeting, “Hello, my name is Azgi,” a bright, toothy smile and a twinkle in his eye. Azgi has received a letter from America and is about to set off on the journey of a lifetime—leaving his native India to live and work in a restaurant in the U.S.
The play is set in the 1990s—references to GameBoy and the Spice Girls are significant giveaways. The time period enables Mandiv’s play to share the Indian immigrant experience without having to address the more contemporary politically and socially loaded issues for Muslims in America.
Mandiv’s archetypal “nice guy” runs much deeper than his sweet smile. It is backed up by his devotion to his mother, to whom saying goodbye is poignant, and is the first of several displays of the writer’s use of character-defining repetition of words and phrases:
Ma, ma, don’t cry. Why you crying, ma? Listen, listen. You know what? You know what? When I go to America, I will write to you every day. I will write to you so much that my hand will fall off. Ma, come on. Ma, you know what? When I go to America, I will write to you from the… from the top of the Empire State Building! I will write to you from the…. from the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I will write to you from every place I go—McDonalds! I will write to you!
Azgi’s likability is a big part of the success of this play, in which Mandvi also portrays five other characters: the restaurant owner, Hakim; Hakim’s wife, Farrida; their two children, Sakina and Samir, and Sakina’s betrothed, Ali. His sensitivity and sincerity carry him seamlessly out of one character, into the next and back to Azgi again and again.
The letter and postcard motif runs throughout the play visually (a handwritten airmail letter stretches across the scrim of Wilson Chin’s set) as it does thematically. Also threading through the various character portrayals, which are steeped in memories, are myths, such as a story about a river stone, which Azgi cannot remember as he departs from India, but which he recounts later on, with all the significance a remembered story imparts. A layer of cultural Indian references, including a smattering of the native Indian language, Gujarati, also helps infuse the production with exotic flavors, fragrances and humor. One highlight is a scene in a packed restaurant, when Azgi is doing his best to keep the customers satisfied:
Sir, don’t take number 5. Take number 2. No, no, number 2 is better for you. It’s very good, you’ll like it very much. Please sir, don’t take number 5. Sir, I am trying to save your life OK. Look, look in my eyes, OK, number 2 is better for you. OK, OK, look I tell you what, number 3, number 3 is plenty hot, plenty hot. You don’t need number 5. Listen man! I am from India! And even in India nobody asks for number 5! It’s not a real thing that you can eat, it’s just for show.
The actor’s ability to transition from one character to another offers a pleasure of its own. There is an element of sleight of hand to his transformation into Mrs. Hakim, for one. With only a scarf to represent her sari, and a twist of his hips, Mandvi is able to share the female perspective, of a woman who has sacrificed everything for her family. Sadly, she no longer dances, but Mandvi takes the opportunity to give the audience a lesson in classical Indian dance. Moving his hands in the style of an Indian dance that represents a bird: ‘I make a bird, make a bird, make a bird, and bird fly a way, gone!’
Audible, Inc., the producers of audiobook and other spoken-word entertainment, plans to record and release an audio version of the play. Such is the quality of the character portrayals that, with eyes closed, you might not realize that Sakina’s Restaurant is a solo performance.
Audible Theater’s production of Sakina’s Restaurant runs through Nov. 11 at the Minetta Lane Theatre (18 Minetta Lane, Manhattan). Evening performances are at 8 p.m.; Sat/Sun matinee times vary. Tickets at theater box office and through Ticketmaster (800) 982-2787. A limited amount of rush tickets (sold by TodayTix) will be available each day beginning at 10 a.m. on a first-come, first-served basis.