Stage Reviews

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    “Sakina’s Restaurant” and “Over the River and Through the Woods”

    The fun of “Sakina’s Restaurant” is watching its writer and performer Aasif Mandvi create its many characters. The poignancy of the play is in Mandvi’s lyrical telling of the American immigrant experience, melded with brief myths of India.

    This one-man, nearly two-hour play, directed and developed by Kim Hughes, in production at the Odyssey Theatre, follows an ebullient young man named Azgi, who leaves his home in India to pursue a “better life,” starting as a waiter at Sakina’s Restaurant in downtown Manhattan.

    Mandvi mimes, he dances, he has an eye and ear for characters — young or old, male or female. He plunges heart and head into the immediately recognizable family members of Sakina’s.

    The patriarch Hakim tries to hold his family together by tradition while pleasing his American customers; Mandvi creates him with his head perpetually cocked to the left, as if the telephone were permanently clamped to his ear.

    Hakim’s wife, Farrida, sacrificed body and soul to fulfill Hakim’s American dream; Mandvi creates her with a light voice, “feminine” hand gestures and a wayward scarf that seems to have a life of its own.

    Mandvi expertly captures the energy, stance and speech cadences of the 10-year-old son. He tugs at the hem of daughter Sakina’s short knit dress as he creates this very Americanized bride-to-be with a thick New York accent.

    And no story of an Indian restaurant would be complete without a customer — an American customer — who demands extra spicy food, No. 5 on the restaurant’s scale. “Number five is not a real thing you can eat,” Azgi frantically pleads with him, “even in India.”

    As the play begins, Azgi’s mother presses a pebble into his hand and asks him to recall the story of the stone and the river. He can’t recall it. But as the play ends, he remembers the story of a boy who received a beautiful stone but threw it in the river to make it a diamond. It floated downstream and became deposited at the stream’s end with countless other pebbles. The boy spent his days searching for it but gave up when he realized he couldn’t find it because he never really knew what it looked like.

    Mandvi has looked at each pebble, memorized and then re-enacted each one, showing us we are all the same and yet different enough to warrant a moment of individual attention.

    “Sakina’s Restaurant,” plays Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m., matinees Feb. 13 and 27 only, through March 5, at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles. Tel. 477.2055.

    “Over the River and Through the Woods”

    There are a sweetness and a familiarity about “Over the River and Through the Woods,” by playwright Joe DiPietro, and a reminder that there is nothing like family — for better or worse.

    In one charming scene, the family plays the board game Trivial Pursuit. Grandson Nick plays strictly to win, precisely following the rules and testing his mental mettle. His four grandparents play it as a springboard for conversation, a chance for human interaction.

    At the newly refurbished and reopened El Portal Center for the Arts, the production shows how plays can share this dichotomy; some are designed to hone opinions or probe emotions, others seem created for a warm and fuzzy evening out.

    In this case, the production favors the grandparents’ modality and the warm fuzzies.

    Grandson Nick lives in New York. His parents and sister fled to the far corners of the country, leaving him with four doting grandparents, not coincidentally Italians all. As the play begins, he has something to announce to the four: He has been offered a promotion and transfer to Seattle — the fourth corner of the country.

    The play asks Nick, and of course the audience, to decide whether the grandparents are selfishly manipulating him into staying or whether they have a legitimate and ancient belief that families must stay together.

    Directed by Asaad Kelada, the play has a pleasing cohesiveness. But each character is a little grating, and while they must love one another because they are family, the audience has no such constraint.

    Stuart Fratkin plays Nick with a pleasant balance between naturalness and manic frustration. Joseph Campanella, Joseph Cardinale, Carol Lawrence and Erica Yohn are his grandparents. Shannon O’Hurley plays a “visitor” to their home.

    Cardinale delivers a meaty monologue, about his childhood and his later return to the old country, that stands above the rest. Lawrence has an entrancing presence and is a wonderful casting choice in lieu of the traditional, mortadella-shaped Italian grandma.

    The theater is warm and inviting, with good sight lines. But opening night had its share of missed light cues and muffed lines, and the play was too often disrupted by a banging sound from backstage — mishaps that should have been corrected after previews.

    A slight echo from the theater’s acoustics spoiled some of the play’s intimacy and may be responsible for the muffling of some of Campanella’s delivery.

    “Over the River and Through the Woods” plays through Feb. 6, Tuesdays through Sundays, plus weekend matinees, at El Portal Center for the Arts, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. $35/$40/$42. Telecharge: 800.233.3123. Information: 818.508.4200.