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Theatre Review by David Hurst

Tala Ashe, Hadi Tabbal, Ava Lalezarzadeh,
Marjan Neshat, and Pooya Mohseni

Photo by Ahron R. Foster
A co-production of the Atlantic Theater Company and Roundabout Theatre Company, the world premiere of Sanaz Toossi's English at the Atlantic's mainstage is a moving play that will undoubtedly provoke soul-searching from its audiences about the causal relationship between our identity and our language. Or languages, as is the case in this haunting, lyrical exploration of a group of Iranian students enrolled in a TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) class taught by an Iranian teacher who has spent time living abroad. Their individual reasons for being in the classroom are as varied as their personalities, but they all hope mastering English will provide them with a linguistic key to alter their lives. It shouldn't be a surprise that some fare better than others in their mutual endeavor, but all of them will be forever changed.

Beautifully directed by Knud Adams with welcome touches of levity and cultural humor, it won't be a spoiler to explain how the text of Toossi's play is presented. The characters speak in both their native tongue, Farsi, as well as in English, obviously, since they are learning to speak English more fluently. When they speak Farsi within the play, however, they're actually speaking English in fast-paced, comfortable cadences and inflections–the way native speaking Americans talk to one another. When they're speaking English as the language they're learning, however, it's spoken in a halting, insecure manner and their accents are greatly pronounced, something of which they're painfully self-aware. It may sound confusing, but it's not. Audiences quickly understand when the characters are speaking Farsi and when they're speaking English. It's a clever theatrical device that emphasizes one of the major themes of English; specifically, we are the language we speak, and we cannot escape it. We are defined by our language and feel the constraints of our verbal upbringing when we attempt to master the languages of others.

Set in 2008 in Karaj, Iran, the class is taught by Marjan (Marjan Neshat), a kind woman who is married with a daughter but remains torn between two languages. She previously spent nine years living in England but returned to Iran because she "grew tired" of dealing with the otherness of being–and sounding–different in a country that wasn't her own. But Marjan loves speaking and teaching English to others because she loves the prestige that comes from stepping outside her Iranian identity and possessing the gift of a different language in a country where women's rights and freedoms are almost non-existent.

Marjan's class consists of four students: Goli (Ava Lalezarzadeh), a young woman just out of school who has always dreamed of learning English; Elham (Tala Ashe), an ambitious and competitive young woman who hates English but needs a good score on her TOEFL test to pursue her dream of going to medical school in another country; Roya (Pooya Mohseni), a middle-aged woman who is taking the class as preparation for a move to live with her son and his family in Canada; and Omid (Hadi Tabbal), a mysterious young man who already seems to speak English extremely well and catches the attention of Marjan, who enjoys working on her English with a speaker who is her verbal equal, or better. As the play unfolds and its characters' lives and secrets are revealed, the realities of identity and language clash, making heartbreak and resignation inevitable.

Despite a handful of contrivances in Toossi's writing, as well as a couple of head-scratching eleven o'clock revelations, the cast is uniformly superb, with rich portraits of complex characters created by everyone on stage. Adams' adroit direction gets out of the way of his talented actors, providing a showcase for their exceptional gifts. The design team, too, keeps things clean and simple, with Enver Chakartash's spot-on costumes, Reza Behjat's atmospheric lighting, and Sinan Refik Zafar's gorgeous sound design all fusing together in a glorious whole on Marsha Ginsberg's revolving classroom cube of a set. (Note—due to the size of the revolving classroom, some audience members have complained of problematic sightlines from the first few rows, so be forewarned.) Additional praise goes to Sinan Refik Zafar's unexpected selection of incidental and scene-change music. Ranging from late 19th century artists like Claude Debussy and Cyril Scott, to contemporary pianists and composers such as Muriël Bostdorp, Nils Frahm, Noriko Ogawa and Akira Kosemura, the contrast between the music's elegant ambiance and the stark Iranian setting elevates the entire production.

by Sanaz Toossi
Through March 13, 2022
Atlantic Theater Company / Roundabout Theatre Company
Atlantic Theater Company Linda Gross Theater, 336 W 20th St, New York NY
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