In a theatrical season marked by a half-dozen or more one-man shows, Bombay-born Aasif Mandvi is the new kid on the block. As an East Indian immigrant, the writer-actor examines Manhattan’s South Asian community with the giddy eye of a gullible tourist and a tenuous eavesdropper. As written and performed by Mandvi and developed by director Kim Hughes, “Sakina’s Restaurant” boasts a slim comic edge but ultimately skirts any real emotional connection.
The first member of his family to travel airborne, Mandvi uses his passport as a ticket to the land of opportunity. He lands on the other side of the world in America, home of Hollywood, the Grand Canyon, the Empire State building and “Cleveland, where they have all the Indians!” Living with his sponsor-employer Hakim, who owns a lower-Manhattan restaurant, Mandvi offers a string of mini-profiles that explore the lives of the restaurateur and his family.
While Mandvi spins his tales with wide-eyed naivete, they are not terribly interesting. Hakim’s wife, Farrida, who harbored dreams of becoming an exotic classical dancer, has become a disillusioned housewife who cleans, cooks and surrenders to her husband’s occasional demands for “hanky panky.”
Sakina is Hakim’s daughter, whose marriage to a Muslim med student has long been prearranged by the families. Prior to their marriage, Sakina reflects on her former American boyfriend and the unnerving two months it took to convince her suitor that she wasn’t Iranian.
Meanwhile, on the eve of the nuptials, her betrothed, Ali, encounters a prostitute who reminds him of an American girlfriend. Guilt-ridden and governed by Islamic code, Ali cannot engage in an indiscretion. Sakina’s obnoxious brother, preoccupied with a game-boy, is an insufferable extraneous character.
The play’s most amusing sequence finds Mandvi struggling with the language barrier and learning to “smile, nod, and say ‘yes’ ” for acceptable communication. As an eager and bustling young waiter in conflict with Abdul, the bullish cook, he attempts to pacify some dissatisfied patrons. Serving a cold lamb curry instead of the requested hot chicken dish to one table, he rushes to another demanding diner who insists upon ordering well-seasoned Indian cuisine from a menu which notes a spicy scale of one to five. The frustrated Mandvi suggests No. 2, screaming, “Even Indians don’t ask for No. 5!”
Mandvi is a likable and arresting storyteller who seasons his tale with a warming, infectious smile and an eagerness to please. The actor deftly assumes the identities of his characters, even taking a brief turn in drag as Sakina. But the narrative’s slender thread lacks a cohesive flow, and the portraits are simply too fragmentary for sustained involvement.
Production values are minimal, with a few small tables to suggest a rather tacky little eatery. Vignettes from the family album are separated by atmospheric musical interludes of Indian ragas.