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A CurtainUp Review
Sakina's Restaurant

Hello, my name is Azgi. I like hamburger, baseball, and Mr. Bob Dylan..— Azgi
Sakina's Restaurant
Aasif Mandvi (Photo: Lisa Berg)
Sakina's Restaurant premiered off Broadway twenty years ago (Curtainup's review) and now resurfaces as an Audible production at the Minetta Lane Theatre with surprising political punch. Although the solo-play has its humorous moments, it is far from lighthearted as it traces an Indian immigrant's journey to the Big Apple.

Written and performed by Aasif Mandvi, who has become well known since his appearance in the premiere production of Disgraced and as correspondent for Jon Steart's The Daily Show, Sakina's Restaurant starts out as one man's pursuit of the American Dream and turns into a probing portrait of an immigrant struggling to straddle two cultures and making sense of each.

Here's the premise: Sponsored by a Manhattan restaurant owner named Hakim, Agzi leaves his small village in India to find a better life in New York. Although he knows that his job as a waiter makes him a cipher in the big city, he soon learns that he'll get along just fine as long as he smiles at the customers, and spritzes his social interactions with "yes, yes, yes, you are absolutely right."

Mandvi insinuates himself into four other personas: Hakim, the owner of the titular restaurant; Hakim's wife Farrida; his daughter Sakina and Ali the medical student to whom she is engaged Ali; and his 10 year-old son Samir. Mandvi morphs from one character to another with quicksilver speed, deftly employing a bit of stage business with a simple scarf or tie. If you listen carefully, the identity of the persona he's inhabiting will emerge with all the peculiarities of a full-blooded human being.

There are plenty of laughs. But some of the most powerful moments are serious, and involve arguments over inter-generational cultural differences. Case in point: Hakim tries to rein in his daughter Sakina who he feels has become too Americanized and forgotten the importance of her Indian heritage. He launches into an aria of fury about her low-cut necklines and short-hemmed dresses —and still worse, her open-minded attitude about associating with people outside their own Muslim religion and background. Even before this harangue ends, one has traveled deeply into the emotional thickets of this Indian family tree.

The traditional Indian stories interspersed into the piece serve as the theatrical glue to hold the disparate scenes together. Although all of the imbedded tales carry nuggets of wisdom, two particularly stand out for their enduring spiritual truths.

One of these is about an eagle and a lark: The eagle boasts that it "has seen the world seven times over" . . .the lark who has seen a little more of the world but whose tiny song "lifted up out of the earth and rose to heaven."

Also profound is the parable imparted by Hakim to Agzi, comparing success to a mountain — "From far away it is inspiring, but when you get close, you realize that it is simply made of earth and dirt and rocks, piled one on top of the other until it touches the sky."

Wilson Chin's set design, in collaboration with Mary Louise Geiger's lighting, evokes an ethnic Manhattan restaurant in the East Village. The multi-colored lighting and wall d├ęcor lend a festive air and a few tables and chairs, though plain, are just right for this play that is almost entirely set in a restaurant's dining room.

In Sakina's Restaurant, the author tells the inner as well as the outer truth of an Indian family. It no doubt had cultural significance when it was staged off Broadway two decades ago. But it has gained a new painful pertinence in 2018.

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Sakina's Restaurant
Written and performed by Aasif Mandvi
Scenic design: Wilson Chin
Costume design: Jen Caprio
Lighting design: Mary Louise Geiger
Sound design: Jill BC Du Boff
Stage Manager: Jason Brouillard
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Audible at the Minetta Lane Theater
From 10/05/18; opening 10/14/18; closing 11/11/18. Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan at October 13th press matinee

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