Now that venue has become the Roundabout-hosting Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center containing the Laura Pels Theatre, and Mandvi is a star, most famous as “Chief Brown Correspondent” on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He has won a Peabody Award and starred in Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-winning play around race, sex, and money, Disgraced.
But Sakina’s Restaurant, opening Sunday night at the Minetta Lane Theatre and directed by Kimberley Senior, who directed Disgraced, doesn’t feel like a comfortable old shoe the skilled and witty Mandvi is trying back on.
Nor, despite the immense political and cultural shifts that have occurred since 1998, does this charming and witty show feel dated; the Trump administration’s animus toward immigrants makes it timely and moving, but not in the way you might expect.
Its cultural politics—Mandvi, an Indian-American Muslim, was Bombay-born and U.K.-raised—are mostly implicit rather than explicit. You have to accept that 9/11 has not happened at the time of its writing, and you also have to accept the play's innocence and its determined apolitical mien. That may feel unacceptable, or unrealistic, to some in this culturally charged and fractious era, but Sakina's Restaurant lives in its own time and in the spirit of its own whimsy.
Azgi, the primary character Mandvi plays, first appears walking in the aisle toward the stage, carrying a suitcase. He addresses us not as a theater audience but as witnesses to a life about to unfold, as Azgi prepares to leave India for the United States.
The half-dozen characters he plays in the course of 90 minutes take in Azgi and the sum parts of the restaurant of the title. Silent and invisible, other characters exist in Mandvi’s sight line, and in all our minds, as arguments and intimacies erupt. If you don’t make it to the Minetta Lane, Audible will also record and release Mandvi’s performance as an audio play.
Azgi has dreams; he imagines writing to his mother from the Empire State Building or the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
The backdrop to this moment is an AirMail envelope painted on a curtain, which falls away to reveal Wilson Chin’s perfectly rendered interior of Sakina’s Restaurant itself, an Indian restaurant in the East Village where Azgi becomes a waiter. On the walls are posters showing the Taj Mahal, an elephant, and Indian tourism posters. There are fairy lights and other lights shaped as colored peppers. The maximum occupancy of this busy neighborhood place is 57 persons. The tables have pink and white tablecloths.
Azgi just wants to get on, and Mandvi’s talent for physical comedy is on a par with his skill for characterization. Azgi has no time to think of his big dreams because the restaurant is all-absorbing. The chef is huge and not to be defied, especially as he hoists Azgi up by his neck after a row over a misunderstood order.
Mandvi also embodies the restaurant owner Hakim, his wife, Farrida, their daughter, Sakina, and son, Samir, as well as the Indian medical student, Ali, to whom Sakina’s marriage has been arranged.
These character studies are both light, joshing, and piercing. Farrida’s husband comes home, horny for “hanky panky,” with Mandvi as Farrida fending off the unseen Hakim with a rolling pin. But her tone of amused forbearance becomes darker, in a speech to her husband that ends up revealing the many frustrated dreams and ambitions she left behind for marriage.
Hakim himself is a strict father to Sakina. We see him lecturing her about what she’s wearing and how she’s behaving. We smile as we see his elongated way of saying goodbye on the phone.
The play is loosely framed around Sakina’s arranged marriage to Ali. Mandvi puts on a tight dress to play her, as she confronts a man (who is not Ali) in her life. Her choices, which should be so many, constrict to way too few.
We follow Ali himself as he takes a dramatic route away from his planned marriage. And we also go to India with the bratty Samir, resentful and dismissive of the country of his ancestors, and Hakim shocked at his son's blithe rudeness and entitlement.
For all his many skills, Mandvi is better at inhabiting his male characters than his female. He needs to find another way of signaling “female” than looking up doe-eyed and putting his hand on a jutted-out hip. It adds a needless layer of stereotypical femininity, which detracts from the preciseness of the observation. For other characters, Mandvi’s distinguishing props are simple: a tie and a pair of glasses.
All the characters are finely written and meaningful snapshots, except Azgi. In between the heavier and more emotional moments of the other characters, he re-emerges as a warm and kind jack-of-all-trades.
His is tellingly the most elusive character. Any immigrant will recognize this, perhaps: the willed and necessary immersion into whatever your new culture offers to you. Azgi just barrels on, working as hard as he needs to, playing along, being the good employee.
The racism Azgi observes is casual, such as the conflation of Iranian and Indian, an experience of the everyday lack of awareness about where different people with brown skin might be from. Azgi is indefatigable, and Mandvi endows him with a beguiling, madcap energy and sense of decency and dignity. When one unseen customer requests the spiciest dish on the menu, Azgi begs him not to, knowing that the Western tongue will not be able to take it—for goodness’ sake, his own tongue cannot, he says.
Mandvi’s characters draw us in, because they are presented to us so directly and with such playful care. The big unanswered question of the play belongs to Azgi. Did our hero ever leave Sakina’s Restaurant, you wonder? Did he ever make his immigrant’s dreams beyond Sakina’s Restaurant come true? How are Azgi, his loved ones, colleagues and friends doing in Trump's America? Maybe it’s time for Mandvi to write a sequel.
Sakina's Restaurant is at the Minetta Lane Theatre, New York City, until Nov. 11.