In our era of identity politics, many of us define ourselves primarily by our political beliefs, sexual orientation, race, religion or gender. But as Sanaz Toossi’s affecting new play “English” reminds us, what language we speak – and what languages others force us to speak – is often the predominate component of one’s identity. Indeed, this very smart one-act play -- now being co-presented by the Atlantic Theater Company (at the Linda Gross Theater) and the Roundabout Theater Company – speaks volumes about an important issue many people here in America never think about.
Toossi’s set-up is simple, but all the better to raise its complex topics. In a small city in Iran in 2008, Marjan (the lovely Marjan Neshat) – an Iranian woman who spent nine years in England and speaks both English and Farsi beautifully – teaches a class for those taking the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language).
Her four students all have their own motives for being there: Elhaim (a superb Tala Ashe) is a medical student who needs to pass the test to work in Australia, but struggles with English because she resents having to learn it; Gidi (an endearing Ava Laleharzadeh) is an 18-year-old enchanted with the language, even if she thinks it would be just fine to speak it like the Colombian pop singer Shakira; Roya (a commanding Pooya Morseni) is trying to please her son, now living in Canada and who only wants Roya to speak English to his daughter; and Omid (the charismatic Hadi Tabbal), who seemingly already speaks perfect English, says he needs to improve his skills in order to get a Green Card.
While the entire play is performed in English, the characters are speaking in Farsi much of the time, and the entire cast brilliantly makes these distinctions clear. As does Toossi’s script, since the characters talk with a different sense of ease and speed when conversing in the native language. And, naturally, each of them – even Marjan -- can only truly express their feelings in Farsi, whether that’s pain, recrimination, self-doubt, and, on occasion, joy.
Director Knut Adams is to be commended for guiding this excellent cast in doing uniformly fine work. But he can’t overcome the decision (whosever it was) to use Marsha Ginsberg’s unnecessarily distracting rotating set, which frequently blocks audience members’ view of who is speaking. In a play where language is paramount, that’s an almost unforgivable sin. In fact, I wish I knew how to say that in Farsi.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Tala Ashe, Ava Lalezarzadeh, Pooya Mohseni, Marjan Neshat, Hadi Tabbal
Atlantic Theater Company/Linda Gross Theater
336 West 20th Street
New York, NY 10011