You may have never thought about it before but you are defined by your language. Your identity is shaped by the words you have and the words you don’t. You can say certain things in one language but not in another. Being bilingual you have one identity, two, or have a split personality. Learning a new language may be like finding a new identity as an adult after you have learned to live with the old one for a long time. These ideas are all beautifully handled in Sanaz Toossi’s lovely, poignant new play, English, under the astute direction of Knud Adams, now being given its world premiere in a co-production between Atlantic Theater Company and Roundabout Theatre Company at the Linda Gross Theater. We grow to care about the characters as we watch them struggle with learning English as though their lives depended on it.
The play takes place in a language school in Karaj, Iran’s fourth largest city, in 2008. It covers a six week course for students preparing for the TOEFL exam, the Test of English as a Foreign Language. We witness group classes (word games, role playing conversations, show-and-tell sessions, etc.), office hours with individual students, and smoking breaks. The play is spoken in English: when the characters speak in hesitant English they use their personal accents. When they speak Farsi, the language of Iran, they speak in swift unaccented English. Although the teacher, 44-year-old Marjan has lived in Manchester, England, for nine years, she has been taught American English. She only permits English to be spoken in her class. She gives demerits for breaking this rule: five mistakes and you are out of class. The four women, of course, wear headscarves at all times.
Each of the students has a different reason for studying English: 28-year- old Elham has an acceptance to an Australian medical school which is contingent on her having a certain grade on the TOEFL exam; unfortunately she has failed it five times before. Roya, age 54, is a grandmother whose son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter live in Canada. Her son has told her that she can only come to live with them if she speaks perfect English as he does not want his daughter to learn Farsi but only English. Omid, age 29, the only male in the class, who speaks quite well, has a green card interview coming up. His English is so good that he makes the others suspicious. Goli, the youngest student at age 18, has always liked English which to her does not attempt to be poetry like Farsi. It would not be giving anything away to reveal that not all of the students last till the final class of the session. All but one of these people have a secret.
Under Adams’ direction, not only is each character clearly defined but each is also made very different from the others. Tala Ashe’s Elham seems to have a chip on her shoulder, always quick to see a slight, and always on the edge of exploding. On the other hand, Ava Lalezarzadeh’s Goli, the youngest student, is cheerful, modest, and apologetic. As Roya, the grandmother who wishes to see more of her Canadian grandchild, Pooya Mohseni appears efficient, self-possessed and poised. Nothing seems to faze her – except her son in Canada. As the only male in the class, Hadi Tabbal’s Omid is confident, self-effacing and charming. Marjan Neshat as the teacher is caring, patient and understanding but also liable to error and often tense. Her reasons for returning to Iran are never clear other than the fact that she felt like a stranger in England even when her English was expert enough to be taken for a native.
Marsha Ginsberg’s cube-like classroom revolves so that we see the room from different angles, just as the students learn English each from their own perspective. This gives the many-scened play multiple points of view. The lovely piano music supplied by sound designer Sinan Refik Zafar covers the set changes when the classroom revolves. While the costumes by Enver Chakartash are traditional blouses and pants for the women, she varies the colors of their outfits as well as headscarves which adds to the white room with its pale yellow curtains. The only time Reza Behjat’s lighting is allowed to vary from the brightly lit classroom is when the characters step onto a balcony for their break.
Not only is Toossi’s play poignant, it is also subtle as the class deals with seemingly emotional crises both in their learning and in their lives. We watch how the approaching exam affects some of the students, while others are more affected by events in their personal lives. Marjan, the teacher, goes through her own crises in the course of the play as do all educators who become involved with their students. English has a haunting resonance as well as inspiring one to think about identity and language: who are you and how has language shaped you? Suddenly hot, playwright Sanaz Toossi’s next play Wish You Were Here about the 1978 Iranian revolution begins at Playwrights Horizons on April 13 and again includes actress Marjan Neshat in its cast of five.
English (extended through March 20, 2022)
Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 646-989-7996 or visit http://www.atlantictheater.org
Running time: one hour and 50 minutes without an intermission