Aasif Mandvi expresses much of the tension of the U.S. immigrant experience in his engaging solo, “Sakina’s Restaurant,” at the Odyssey Theatre. Employing vigorous but disciplined physicality, he plays six immigrants from India, of both genders.
Mandvi presents most of his characters one at a time, yet they’re generally speaking not in monologues but in conversations with one other person, who’s clearly identified but unheard by the audience. This technique produces a few too many lines in which Mandvi’s character repeats what the other person has supposedly just said, but it’s not a major problem.
The script revolves around the household of Hakim and Farrida, a couple who made the trek from India primarily for a better standard of living and now run the titular establishment in New York. Their children have more fully imbibed the new culture than they have, and they aren’t happy about it.
Their teenage daughter, Sakina, is wavering between a boyfriend who isn’t even sure if she’s Indian or Iranian and a fellow Indian immigrant, who was picked for her by her parents. We hear her side of a confrontation with the clueless U.S. boyfriend, who challenged her to tear up a photo of his rival. Her reaction to that challenge is a crackling dramatic moment.
Just as good is a scene in which her young brother, Samir, on a trip back to India for his grandmother’s funeral, flies into a tantrum when asked to donate some of his American toys to his cousin. A glimpse of Sakina’s guilt-wracked fiance, visiting a prostitute on the eve of his medical school finals and his wedding, is also intriguing.
Scenes featuring the two parents are a bit more predictable. And a waiter named Azgi, who just arrived in the U.S., is lively but lightweight.
Azgi serves as the narrator to whom the story repeatedly returns. Besides his direct speeches to the audience, we also see him on the job, as he amusingly wrestles with a customer’s request to make the food as spicy as possible. Yet despite the initial impression that he will be the show’s focus, he remains sketchy, creating a small vacuum at the play’s core. He does tell us a few brief allegories that heighten the mood, as do the atmospheric music and lighting.
Mandvi uses only his own mimetic skill and a few basic props and suggestions of costumes to differentiate the characters, but nothing is unclear. Kim Hughes directed and helped develop the show, which is co-produced by the Odyssey and New York’s American Place Theatre.
* “Sakina’s Restaurant,” Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. except Feb. 13 and 27, 2 p.m. Ends March 5. (310) 477-2055. $18.50-$22.50. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.