In 2018, Audible mounted an off-Broadway revival of Aasif Mandvi’s Sakina’s Restaurant, a play which twenty years earlier has helped launch the career of Mandvi, opening up more theatre roles, and most notably, a considerable run as a correspondent on the popular The Daily Show. The revival was recorded and is now available as an Audible Original Studio Recording.
At the time of the revival, America was at the peak of its debate on immigration, thanks to a new President with controversial opinions. So, it makes sense that Sakina’s Restaurant would seem like a timely and relevant piece to stage. In the main it follows Agzi, an East Indian immigrant newly arrived in New York to chase that ever elusive American Dream.
His trip has been sponsored by Hakim, the owner of the restaurant which gives the play its title, and where Agzi will work as a waiter, often advising the customers to go for less spicy dishes, “trust me, I’m trying to save your life” he says to one customer who has ordered a number five, when Agzi suspects an number two will be more than sufficient.
The play quickly diverges into other members of Hakim’s family; his wife Farrida who has given up her hopes of being a dancer, his daughter Salina who is being entered in to an arranged marriage with Ali, and their son Samir who is more concerned with his Gameboy than the cultural shifts erupting around him.
Sakina’s Restaurant flits between each of the characters, as we listen into each of them delivering not so much monologues, but one-sided conversations. Mandvi plays all of these different characters, but sadly without anything visual to guide us they all end up sounding much the same, and as such, the story becomes confusing and disjointed.
There are snippets here and there which are amusing, or interesting to listen to, but trying to combine all of these ingredients in to one completed dish is almost impossible. While Agzi is intended to be the central character, with whom we observe all these other characters, we find ourselves none the wiser about Agzi as a person. Mandvi does fare well as the female characters, Farrida and Salina, and it is in these guises that we get more of a glimpse at the message this play is trying to convey.
Sakina’s Restaurant works well enough if you consider it like a tapas bar, enjoy the small plates that are served up, savouring the flavours of the individual stories, but don’t expect it to equate to a whole meal.