By Tulis McCall
Early on in Sakina’s Restaurant, Aasif Mandvi – both author and sole actor – is a narrator, Azgi, who 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 tru 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 possession 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.
Sakina’s Restaurant – written and performed by Aasif Mandvi; Directed by Kimberly Senior.
The creative team includes Wilson Chin (scenic design), Jen Caprio (costume design), Mary Louise Geiger (lighting design), and Jill BC Du Boff (sound design).
Tickets for Sakina’s Restaurant are available at www.audible.com/minettalane, by calling Ticketmaster at 1-800-982-2787, and in-person at the Minetta Lane Theatre box office (18 Minetta Lane, between MacDougal & 6th Avenue