If language is how we tell people who we are, can identity get lost in translation? The humor, frustrations, and consequences of adopting a non-native tongue are the basis of Sanaz Toossi’s play English. But the stories it tells also resonate deep beneath the surface, touching on hope, belonging, desire, and what makes people who they are.
English is both a buoyant comedy of communication and a subtle but probing exploration of what it means to speak out loud and feel understood. That one play can accomplish as much with wit, ease, precision, and heart, as English does in a swift 115 minutes, makes it among the best new plays of the season.
The action is set in a preparation class for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (or TOEFL) in Karaj, a large suburb of Tehran, Iran. The test represents a different hurdle for each of the enrolled students, for whom mastery of English promises to turn the page on the next chapter in life. Their teacher Marjan (Marjan Neshat) insists her students only speak English in class, a typical practice of foreign language instruction.
Toossi, in a gesture that bridges the distance between her Iranian characters and presumed Western audiences, writes almost solely in English as well. When her characters are speaking Farsi, we hear unaccented, easy, voicy English — obviously their most comfortable means of expression. When they’re practicing English, we hear hesitation, heavy accents, and staccato rhythms as language becomes a kind of mask.
For a med school hopeful (Tala Ashe), passing the test means she’ll get to pursue gastrointestinal research and eventually “make less of suffering” for people, as she puts it in English. (“Yes, my accent is a war crime,” she quips in Farsi.) For a woman (Pooya Mohseni) whose son emigrated to Canada, learning English means she might get to see her granddaughter. For the youngest and fastest learner of the group (Ava Lalezarzadeh), it means unlocking more possibilities for the life ahead of her.
Only one student who’s far more advanced (Hadi Tabbal) has less obvious reasons for attending class, even aside from the slow-burn flirtation he develops with the teacher. (In a delightful bit of mirroring, the two spend Marjan’s office hours watching Hollywood rom-coms, movies being a useful way to train the ear.)
Knud Adams beautifully directs the world premiere from Atlantic Theater Company and Roundabout Theatre Company with a fluid assurance. There’s an almost cosmic quality to designer Marsha Ginsberg’s white cubic set, surrounded by darkness but for inside the classroom, and rotating between scenes for shifts in perspective. Lighting by Reza Behjat glows through the curtains with a promising gold but casts long, discomfiting shadows.
A test on paper may have a clear outcome — pass or fail, the potential for triumph or fallout. But what does it mean to train your mouth and your mind in a way that denies their origins? And to do so in English, a language of opportunity, but also of imperialism and assimilation?
Toossi approaches big, thorny questions with an expertly light touch, rooting her play’s intricacies in well-shaded characters. But take a slight step back and the full picture comes into view — a stunning meditation on what makes us human.
Photo credit: The company of English. (Photo by Ahron R. Foster)