In an apparent effort to demonstrate that he’s become one of us, Mandvi arrives in the theater by walking down the central aisle at the Minetta Lane Theatre, wide-eyed, as he peers and takes in the audience, on his way to the stage. And indeed, Azgi’s had at least 20 years to become increasingly assimilated: Sakina’s Restaurant was originally presented at the American Place Theatre in 1998.
During the intervening decades, Mandvi has also become more and more noticeable: not only in the Pulitzer-Prize winning play Disgraced, but also as a correspondent on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show.
Unlike other one-person, multiple-personality plays–by Whoopi Goldberg, Eric Bogosian, Anna Devere Smith, and John Leguizamo, to name the more prominent ones–Mandvi does not change his voice to create the different characters he inhabits in Sakina’s Restaurant. He rather delineates them through physical gestures and mannerisms.
The primary narrator, Azgi, begins his tale by describing the time when he left India and “practically the entire village” showed up in his “parents’ small house to celebrate” his departure.
As a scrim of a large, airmail envelope with foreign markings on it falls away, the set of the title is revealed: an elaborately gaudy restaurant, where Azgi becomes a waiter. (The very busy but effective set has been designed by Wilson Chin and is equally effectively lit by Mary Louise Geiger.) He first tells us, jokingly, that he’s the “manager” and then the “owner,” before admitting he’s only a waiter, as he arranges tables and chairs. The restaurant is, naturally, on East 6th Street and it’s owned by Hakim and his wife Farrida. Sakina is their daughter, and she ultimately proves one of Mandvi’s most impressive characterizations.
With little more than a turquoise blue scarf, Mandvi becomes Farrida, who proclaims herself “very talented and mysterious.” And she tells Hakim, “You work in that restaurant fifteen hours a day.” and then you come home and all you are thinking about is Hanky Panky.”
With costumes by Jen Caprio, Mandvi dons a colorful dress and headband to become Sakina. During the course of the story, Sakina–who had been “betrothed” to someone back home by her parents, when she was just a girl–marries Ali, a medical student and “a very religious Muslim man.” But Ali is involved in some “Hanky Panky” of his own, when he visits a whore named Angel. “That’s an ironic name for someone who does what you do for a living,” says Ali.
Mandvi also becomes Sakina’s young brother Samir, who complains about not going to Disney World, because his grandmother (“Dadi Ma”) died and the family had to go back to India instead. Mandvi, who does adopt a different voice as Samir, really shines as this bratty, spoiled child.
Director Kimberly Senior has apparently brought out the best of Mandvi who never seems less than himself even as he impersonates a number of other people. It’s a tour de force performance that places us in his ever-changing reality.
Sakina’s Restaurant (extended through November 11, 2018)
Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-833-7698 or visit http://www.Ticketmaster.com
Running time: 80 minutes without an intermission