Thursday, October 25, 2018

107 (2018-2019): Review: SAKINA'S RESTAURANT (seen October 24, 2018)

"Table for One"

Sakina’s Restaurant is a one-man, multiple-character, mostly comic play whose most original feature is that it’s about Indian Muslim immigrants to America. It originally was produced Off Broadway in 1998 and now being revived by its Bombay-born, British-American author and star, Aasif Mandvi. In the years since its premiere, much has happened to Mandvi and his fellow Muslims. On the positive side would be his gaining national prominence as a correspondent on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”; on the negative, the anti-Muslim biases awakened by 9/11. 
Aasif Mandvi. Photo: Lisa Berg.
Sakina’s Restaurant having been written before that fateful day, there’s little in it about religious politics, which is not to say it doesn’t contain self-referential Muslim humor, such as jibes directed at prayer requirements or at an ignorant hooker’s confusion of the religion’s name with a kind of cloth. Instead, it depicts the contrast between, on one hand, the dream of economically deprived immigrants everywhere that America’s streets are paved with gold, and, on the other, the reality they’ll discover when they live here.
Aasif Mandvi. Photo: Lisa Berg.
When the play begins, Mandvi appears in the aisle as a heavily accented, wide-eyed, and bushy-tailed young man named Agzi, suitcase in hand, saying goodbye to his mother in India before boarding a plane (he’s the first in his family to do so) bound for America. There, family friends, Hakim and Faridda, are sponsoring him so he can work for them at Sakina’s Restaurant, located at what knowing theatregoers will recognize as a Lower East Side address. Muslim immigration appears to have been a relatively simple procedure in 1998.

After he mounts the stage to finishes his goodbyes, which involves receiving a small stone as a farewell gift, the show curtain—depicting an airmail envelope covered in Gujarati script—whisks away and we’re in a realistic Indian restaurant (designed by Wilson Chin), adorned with Christmas lights (Mary Louise Geiger did the lighting), where Agzi is busily employed as a waiter.
Aasif Mandvi. Photo: Lisa Berg.
Before long, he begins introducing five other characters, using costume pieces (courtesy of designer Jen Caprio) taken from a hat rack, spectacles, or other simple devices to help characterize each one. We hear only their half of the conversations, but it’s always clear what the other person is saying.

Over the course of the play’s essentially plotless 80 minutes, we get not only the conventional examples of culture shock so many immigrants have experienced but also insights into the aspirations and disappointments of the family for which Agzi works. Every now and then, Agzi returns to offer an elusive parable somehow related to his experiences. That stone his mother gave him, of course, will reveal its symbolism before the play concludes.
Aasif Mandvi. Photo: Lisa Berg.
As he alters his voice, gestures, and expressions, Mandvi first introduces us to Faridda, slaving in the kitchen with her rolling pin as she fends off Hakim’s attempts at “hanky panky” and regrets abandoning her hopes to become a classical Indian dancer. Then we get to know Hakim, struggling to keep his business going while arguing with his teenage daughter, Sakina, about her having become so Americanized she neglects her heritage.

Sakina is suffering from the conflict between her interest in an American boyfriend and the Indian man to whom her parents prearranged her betrothal.  Her fiancé, Ali, driven by his sexual needs to seek a prostitute, is unable to prevent his religious inclinations from commingling with his hormonal ones, And Samir, Sakina’s spoiled younger brother, selfish about his Game Boy, resents everything about India when his family goes there for his grandma’s funeral;
Aasif Mandvi. Photo: Lisa Berg.
While some moments are deeply emotional, Mandvi’s performance is largely comedic, often broadly so. The audience greeted much of it with laughter when I attended. I, though, felt more like the stone in Agzi’s pocket. Culture clashes can make for fine comedy, as so many plays and movies have demonstrated, but Sakina’s Restaurant too often seems clichéd, offering little we haven’t seen or heard in recent years, including in Indian contexts (The Big Sick comes to mind). Thus we have the familiar parental fear that their kids will betray their heritage (remember The Jazz Singer?) for the American way, or that America actually may not be the shining city on the hill longed for by people in hardscrabble countries.
Aasif Mandvi. Photo: Lisa Berg.
At one point, Agzi tries to convince a customer that, using the restaurant’s rating scale of 1-5, the dish he’s ordered as a 5 would be too spicy and should be a 2. “I’m trying to save your life, sir” he insists in one of his best lines. I can’t say how the Zagat Survey would rate Sakina’s Restaurant. But if we're talking about a 1-5 scale measuring theatrical taste, I'd give the play a 2 3/4.


Minetta Lane Theatre
18 Minetta Lane, NYC
Through November 11