By Sarah Downs
If you were born in another country, would you be the same person? What if you had immigrated, speaking your first language at home and your second abroad. Would you be able to express your true self in both languages, or would you forever be a stranger in a strange land? In her poignant comedy English, Sanaz Toossi dissects the intricate question of language and identity with precise and poetic hand.
Language is an identity, a prop, a lens through which one experiences the world, a cloak, a weapon, a liability. It is to be embraced — or is that conquered? It is as much a barrier between people as a conduit to uderstanding. Layer on that the issue of accents, and the knife twists deeper.
In English the play, English the language represents ambition. Four adult students have gathered for their test prep class for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), chasing fluency in the language that will facilitate emigration to the west. The TOEFL is no mere language exam; it is the passport to a new life.
Their teacher Marjan (Marjan Neshat) has one rule. “English only.” Denied the opportunity to rely on their native Farsi, the students have to concentrate on new words, new thoughts. Even as she champions English, however, Marjan, struggles not to dissapear within it. Roya (an elegant Pooya Mohseni), slightly older then the others, possesses an aloof dignity that hints at the intensity of her focus. Her one goal is to to live with her grown son in Canada. All she needs is better English. Sweet Golna (Ava Lalezarzadeh), the youngest among them, excels at learning, while Omid (Hadi Tabbal) appears already to be fluent. It is not clear why he is in this class. Lalezarzadeh carries off Golna’s youth with both humor and innocence. And yet Golna is deceptively wise. Meanwhile there is prickly, complicated Elham (Tala Ashe). Ashe gives a sensitive performance as a vulnerable woman whose competitive nature hinders her success rather than facilitating it.
English takes its time, gathering its energies without rushing. Toossi’s brilliance lies in her capacity to illuminate the intangible without turning the classroom into, well, a classroom. Director Knud Adams matches Toossi step by well-paced step, drawing concise, layered performances from each of the actors.
Indeed, that restraint reflects the production’s economy of scale. Quietly suffused with its own implicit drama, Marsha Ginsberg’s simple rotating set of a square classroom creates space as it also tracks time. In its anonymity, the room is Anyplace in Anytown. At a moment’s notice, however, the simple cube can be transformed by Reza Behjat’s deft lighting. When bright daylight pours through the windows, the walls melt as the back-lit desk legs morph into an infinity of vertical lines, like a wheatfield in the midday sun. It is nothing short of stunning.
English is must-see theater. An expertly written, thought-provoking examination of the relationship between language and identity (and so much more), beautifully acted and sensitively directed, this play will stay with you long after you have left the theater.
English, by Sanaz Toossi; directed by Knud Adams. With Tala Ashe, Ava Lalezarzadeh, Pooya Mohseni, Marjan Neshat and Hadi Tabbal. Scenic design by Marsha Ginsberg, costume design by Enver Chakartash, and lighting design by Reza Behjat, sound design by Sinan Refik Zafar. Presented by the Atlantic Theater Company and co-produced by Roundabout Theatre Company (Roundabout Underground).
Runs for a limited engagement, Tuesday, February 22nd through Sunday, March 13th, 2022, at the Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20th Street). For tickets click Here, or go to www.atlantictheater.org. Run-time one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.