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The Primary English Class

My friend Monica, who once taught ESL (English as a Second Language), tells one of my favorite teaching anecdotes. During a review of vocabulary words, she asked the class for the definition of the word "yield." One boy, a student from the former Soviet Union, raised his hand eagerly. "It means to scream at someone." Puzzled, Monica asked him to use it in a sentence. He replied, "My sister was bad, so I yield at her."

Communication is difficult. It can be difficult even when everyone is speaking the same language, but when you have a class full of students with no common language among them, it is well nigh impossible. In Israel Horovitz's The Primary English Class, Didi Conn plays Debbie Wastba, a woman with no teaching experience, teaching her very first class of five students, none of whom speaks a word of English. To say Ms. Wastba is ill-prepared would be a gross understatement. She was hired the night before the class and, though she has ambitious plans for what she intends to cover, has no idea how to teach. As her frustration increases, so does her cruelty, which escalates to absurd heights.

The play is a revival. Times have changed, surely, since the first production, and there is an awareness now of political correctness which makes it harder to laugh at ethnic slurs. We could laugh if we were not asked to be complicit. That is to say, if the audience could separate itself from Ms. Wastba, and laugh at the satirical extremity of her bigotry and insensitivity, then we could laugh, the way we laughed at Archie Bunker. As it is, Conn's performance asks us to identify with her and so we wince at her fumbling and cruelty. It is painful to watch as this woman, who we are, presumably, supposed to like, does embarrassingly stupid and mean things to her students. Ms. Wastba is many things. She is cute and sweet; she is a tyrant. She is caring and, in her own way, dedicated to teaching; she is cruel and insensitive. She's tortured; she's an idiot. My friend Leah, who saw the play with me, said she was hoping the play's second act would reveal that Ms. Wastba "was an escaped mental patient who abducted the real teacher and took her place." It is asking too much of an audience to want us to sympathize with this woman when any one of us could probably have gotten in front of that class and done a better job than Ms. Wastba.

I wonder if The Primary English Class would work better as a film with subtitles. Each of the foreign students speaks in his or her native language and the audience is occasionally made privy to translations by off-stage interpreters. However, most of the time the audience is in the same position as the characters on stage; we have little understanding of what is being said by others. While this is kind of interesting in theory, and might be a great pedagogical tool for people studying to be ESL teachers, theatrically it throws off the comic rhythm. Many of the jokes are lost in those beats of trying to comprehend what has been said.

The gentleman sitting next to us was very friendly and made me laugh when he told me, "I have ties older than you." He did not much like the play, nor did his wife. However, my reaction was more complicated than simple dislike. I was willing to suspend my disbelief about certain things, such as why such clearly wealthy business-people would subject themselves to an English class held in a run-down 6th floor walk-up classroom. I could excuse the rather unlikely detail that not one of these students could speak a single word of English in this day and age. I simply couldn't sustain my connection to the action onstage.

To my surprise, when I told another friend the play's premise and some of the lines, we laughed. Something is lacking in the production which makes it less funny in performance. The director doesn't seem to know where he wants the audience's sympathy to lie. Since we genuinely like and sympathize with each of the students (and, in fact, thrill to see them fight back against Debbie) it is painful to watch her torment them. But this inability to communicate could be very funny. When I was in college, my friend John had a roommate he couldn't stand. Junis, who was from Cyprus, used to drive John crazy, but it got to be too much when Junis threatened to throw John's cat out the window. This was when John began to exact his revenge. He started teaching Junis non-existent American idioms. Junis was heard around campus saying things like, "I was running around the room like a raisin," and "Stop pulling my garden hose!" I love this story for a number of reasons, not least of which is its demonstration of John's cleverness. I love the play with language, and the potential for humor in the space where cultures meet. I wish the play had done more to mine this vein.

Ms. Conn is at her best when she is at her meanest, playing against the sweetness we have come to know her for in Grease and Shining Time Station. If she can turn this up a notch, the play might gel. As Ms. Wastba's students, Diane Cheng, Kenneth Garner, Nami Hirayanagi, Mark Lotito and Charles Stransky do a creditable job as does Edward Furs, who plays the Polish-speaking custodian. They at once capture as a group what Leah calls the "headlight eyes" of a new English students, but also individualize their characters through their performances. Diane Cheng was particularly funny as the Chinese student who defies Ms.Wastba's stereotypes and triumphs in the end.

The Primary English Class opened November 15 and will run through November 22 at the Minetta Lane Theatre. All tickets are $45.


-- Wendy Guida