Nothing in the decade that the British-American comedian Aasif Mandvi spent on “The Daily Show” will prepare you for his astonishing performance in “Sakina’s Restaurant,” the one-man show that opened Sunday at Off Broadway’s Audible Theater at Minetta Lane Theatre.
Over the course of 90 intermissionless minutes, the Mumbai-born performer seamlessly transitions into a half dozen different Indian American characters before our eyes, giving each a unique posture and vocal inflection that summons their individual personalities before our eyes.
We meet Azgi, a waiter in a Lower East Side restaurant newly arrived from his native India; Hakim, the restaurant’s owner and Azgi’s sponsor; Farrida, Hakim’s patient and loving wife; their two children, the teenage Sakina and her Game Boy-loving younger brother, Samir; and Ali, a medical student long betrothed to Sakina by their devout Muslim families.
Mandvi summons these different characters with a minimum of costume changes or props (a hairband for Sakina, glasses for Ali) but the transformation is nonetheless recognizably complete with each new persona.
It’s tour-de-force acting made all the more astonishing for the intimacy of Off Broadway’s tiny Minetta Lane Theatre, where every raised eyebrow or splay of fingers across the chest registers.
It’s a pity that Mandvi’s script, which he developed with original director Kimberley Hughes, doesn’t quite match the depth and dramatic power of his performance. The best sequence is Sakina’s, seen when she is an awkward teenager in one-sided conversation with a recent ex who dumped her after two months for a decidedly less ethnic girlfriend named Julie Montgomery and who mistakenly believes she’s Iranian.
That scene captures the universal contradictions and insecurities of adolescence as well as the particularities of the experience of a girl straddling her traditional Indian upbringing at home and her desire to find a place in a more secular American culture.
Like a later scene in which Ali debates whether to go through with an encounter with a prostitute despite his misgivings as an upright Muslim man, the sequence also contains just enough internal conflict to make up for the evening’s general indifference to plot.
Too often, though, Mandvi’s monologues are diverting-enough character sketches that fail to build to anything dramatic. And they are connected with interstitials, mostly in Azgi’s voice, that strain a bit too heavy-handedly for the poetic or the profound.
Not every bite of a curry needs to pack a wallop, of course. And since Mandvi’s confident performance smooths over many of the rough edges of his script, “Sakina’s Restaurant” delivers a mostly satisfying meal.