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‘Sakina’s Restaurant’ review: Aasif Mandvi play feels reheated

‘Sakina’s Restaurant’ runs through Nov. 11 at the Minetta Lane Theatre. 18 Minetta Lane, sakinasrestaurantplay.com.

Two decades ago, before he became known as a screen actor, comedian and “Daily Show” correspondent, Aasif Mandvi wrote and starred in “Sakina’s Restaurant,” a one-man show in which he portrayed six Indian immigrants — male and female, young and adult — living in New York City.

To mark the 20th anniversary of the original Off-Broadway production, Mandvi is returning to the play for a short run at the Minetta Lane Theatre, which is currently being used by Audible for a variety of live events, including one-person shows starring celebrities (Billy Crudup in “Harry Clarke,” Carey Mulligan in “Girls and Boys”).

Mandvi, 52, last appeared on stage in 2012 in Ayad Akhtar’s drama “Disgraced,” which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and transfer to Broadway without Mandvi (who had landed a role on the HBO series “The Brink”).

As the 90-minute, 1990s-set show begins, Mandvi introduces himself as Agzi, an enthusiastic young Indian who is on the verge of leaving his home to go to America and work as a waiter at a small New York restaurant owned and operated by family friends who themselves made the journey to America not too long before. 

Mandvi then proceeds to portray Agzi’s determined-to-succeed boss and the boss’ extended family, including a forlorn, lonely wife; whiny, video game-playing son; culturally assimilated teenage daughter; and anxious soon-to-be son-in-law. Against a set design depicting the restaurant, Mandvi grabs simple articles of clothing to switch from character to character, with each getting approximately 15 minutes of attention.

With its sympathetic portrayal of immigrants as they adjust to a new life and face questions of cultural identity, the play takes on an extended significance in the current political atmosphere. On social media, Mandvi recently likened the revival to “an act of political resistance against an administration that is at war with immigrants.”

Mandvi displays ingenuity and agility as a character actor. But while one can certainly appreciate the play’s heart and endearing simplicity, “Sakina’s Restaurant” feels rather underwhelming today.

Compared  with more recent solo shows by culturally aware artists like John Leguizamo, Anna Deavere Smith and Sarah Jones, “Sakina’s Restaurant” is more like a collection of sentimental, broadly sketched monologues than a fully developed work in its own right.

One hopes that Mandvi will not wait another six years before giving another stage performance — and that he might consider writing a new play that directly confronts the serious challenges facing immigrants today. Perhaps it could even be a sort of sequel. What’s going on at “Sakina’s Restaurant” in 2018?

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