In Arabic, the name Sakina means tranquility, or calmness; and that’s what you’ll feel when you enter Sakina’s Restaurant, thanks to genial narrator/author Aasif Mandvi.
The twinkle lights help too. The on-stage Indian eatery is swathed in a tangle of colorful string lights, which illuminate a wall full of vintage posters beckoning us to “Visit India.” (Wilson Chin did the terrifically almost-tacky set.) But mostly, it’s Mandvi, a chameleonic actor whose credits include Disgraced at Lincoln Center, a stint as a correspondent on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, and, oh yes, Sakina’s Restaurant, for which he won an Obie Award in 1998.
Though 20 years have passed since Sakina’s creation—there are no updates (cue the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe”) for this revival, produced, and recorded, by Audible—Mandvi looks as bright-eyed and awestruck as his main character, Azgi, who has just left his home in India with a “dream to one day be an American Millionaire.”
For now, he’s waiting tables at Sakina’s, owned by his friend Mr. Hakim, where he tries desperately to discourage diners from ordering too-spicy food. (Azgi’s plea: “Look I tell you what, number 3, number 3 is plenty hot, plenty hot. You don’t need number 5. Listen man! I am from India! And even in India nobody asks for number 5!”)
We also meet Farrida, aka Mrs. Hakim (played by Mandvi in a bright turquoise scarf), as she’s rolling chapati and trying to fend off her “hanky panky”–minded husband; Mr. Hakim (Mandvi in an unfashionable tie, ill-fitting sports coat, and aviator-style eyeglasses), chiding his teenage daughter, Sakina, for her lack of traditional values; Sakina (Mandvi in a headband and what Mr. Hakim would call a “cheap dress”), who’s betrothed to a suitable Indian boy but is still hung up on a jerky American; Ali (Mandvi in studious black-framed specs), Sakina’s very religious, very serious pre-med fiancé; and Samir (Mandvi in a sideways red baseball cap), the Hakims’ smart-mouthed young Game Boy–obsessed son. For those of you who weren’t paying attention, fear not: Toward the end, Mandvi walks slowly around the stage and replays a pivotal line from each character, in the very spot where said character stood or sat.
Though Mandvi returns to Azgi between characters, his portrayals of the Hakims—especially Farrida and Sakina—are the most insightful, down to what seems like the most throwaway details: the way Farrida tugs self-consciously on her dupatta as she reluctantly confesses her loneliness to her husband (“Where have you brought me? Where have we come? To this cold country where nobody talks to anybody”); the sloppy, open-mouthed teenage tongue kiss Sakina gives to her ex (so accurate you’ll cringe). They’re also disappointingly brief, especially compared with Mr. Hakim’s endless harangue about how “Indian girls make their parents proud of them” and how Sakina will “never be an American girl.” We get it—dad speeches are supposed to be long and repetitive. But only in real life.
Sakina’s Restaurant opened Oct. 14, 2018, and runs through Nov. 11 at the Minetta Lane Theatre. Tickets and information: sakinasrestaurantplay.com