Broadway review

‘English’ is one of the best plays in New York right now

The Daily Beast

February 22, 2022

“English” is an exquisitely written, performed, and directed play about a group of Iranians learning English, interrogating how notions of language, identity, and home intersect.

Finally, the textual analysis that Shakira’s “Whenever, Wherever” deserves. As one character in Sanaz Toossi’s play English muses as the song plays, the Andes “is the longest mountain in the world. Many people die in Andes. But Shakira will climb Andes to count freckles on his body. This man could have so many freckles. We do not know.”

Few are the standout gems—those plays that appear, shimmer, and conquer an audience so wholly you feel a delicious, building two-way crackle in the room as a performance progresses. The actors and words reach out to the audience, and the audience, enveloped and absolutely in the zone created by the company, do the same.

English, which opens tonight at the Atlantic Theater Company (to March 22) in a co-production with the Roundabout Theatre Company, is one such gem. This critic’s advice is pretty simple. Book a ticket—an exquisitely written, beautifully acted and mounted one hour and forty-five minutes of theater awaits.

English, directed by Knud Adams, is both a comedy about five Iranians learning English in a school classroom in Karaj, Iran in 2008, and a drama of five clashing personalities—interrogating how notions of language, identity, and home intersect. Is learning English an important way to expand a world and its horizons, or is it diminishing, clouding, a nod to Western cultural hegemony, even a trap?

On the whiteboard of the classroom in English, fortysomething teacher Marjan (Marjan Neshat) has written the title of the course down: “TOEFL: Test of English as a Foreign Language Reading Writing Listening Speaking,” underlining the guiding instruction for any discussion within the class: “English Only.” Marsha Ginsberg’s design is a rotating square containing the classroom that rotates so we see it from different angles, as well as a basic exterior porch. Reza Behjat’s lighting is just as simple and effective, somehow conveying the blazing midday heat, and softer, golden light of the end of a day.

Toossi, winner of the 2020 Steinberg Playwright Award and the Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award, has created a very specifically sketched small group of pupils.

Elham (Tala Ashe, the best kind of spiky), in her late 20s, wants to study gastroenterology in Australia. This is her fifth attempt at such a class, and she wants to ace it to become a teaching assistant to help earn money in her quest to leave the country. However, Elham is not only tired of the failed attempts, but questioning what the objective of the class is.

The imperious Roya (Pooya Mohseni), in her mid-50s, has a son living in Canada with a Western wife; Roya wants to master English so she can speak to her grandchild.

Handsome and languid Omid (Hadi Tabbal) is the only man in the class, and one whose command of English far outstrips his classmates’. He and the encouraging-and-also sharp Marjan gravitate to one another, an attraction that is partly rooted in their experience of enjoying speaking English, and somehow beached between two worlds, and the words and experiences that populate them. Goli (Ava Lalezarzadeh) is just 18, and someone seemingly unburdened with all the big questions and cultural vexations the class elicits in others. She just wants to learn, and enjoys doing so.

For a play with language at its heart, English works in a number of smart linguistic registers. Sometimes it locates its humor or seriousness in the space between the words the students use, and the correct English they are straining to master. Everyone except Omid’s English is halting; but when they break into Farsi—for which Marjan keeps a forbidding score-tally of on the whiteboard—the actors’ convey their fluency, and relief to be fluent, by speaking in a whipcrack-fast American argot.

The classes are made up of stilted conversations about their lives, games in which a ball is thrown from one character to another as they come up with words for things that are green, or items of clothing, or things you find in a classroom. They listen to tapes of American voices discussing basketball games and wedding plans and are then asked questions to test their comprehension. “W” words are recited: “Welcome Wendy! When we are weeping!”

In the first show-and-tell, Goli brings an eyebrow pencil “because brows are really so important, and what if you don’t have a mirror.” Watching a Julia Roberts film with Marjan, Omid notes in a wonderstruck voice how huge her teeth are. “They could rip through wire. In a good way.” Marjan, queen of the double meaning, says “Sometimes understanding Hugh Grant takes two people,” and later—in the play’s best line—rises to turn the DVD player off as Grant and Roberts are left in blissful love at the end of Notting Hill.

“Good for them,” Marjan says. She does not say this snidely, or her portrayer for an easy laugh. She says it so evenly that it is only later you realize we, the audience, with our sudden gale of laughter, have helped make the moment. It is deadpan, but with no overtly mocking intent.

When Marjan asks why we learn a language, the answers vary from need (asking for food) to expressing emotion. Elham says how they speak in this particular class is “unnatural,” and immediately asks Omid why he’s there as he’s already so proficient. Elham says that it doesn’t matter what English the class learns or doesn’t learn; the Western world will judge their residual Iranian accents as funny, stupid, and worse.

Marjan, who lived in the U.K., in the northern English city of Manchester, for nine years, tries to defuse the hostility, claiming, “English is not to be conquered. Embrace it. You can be all the things you are in Farsi in English, too. I always liked myself better in English.” But, she admits, for those nine years she was called “Mary,” not her real name, even though she said she liked it. “Marjan is not hard to say,” says Elham. “Our mothers get to name us. Not foreigners,” says Roya.

Marjan persists, sensing her pupils’ frustration at inviting “a foreign language into your body,” but she asks that in this classroom “we are not Iranian.” She wants them during the classes to “let go” of their Iranian-ness.

This isn’t easy. We see Roya trying to call her son, and not only stumbling over words, but over the distance—geographical and emotional—those stumbling words have come to emblemize. It is too much for her, asking Marjan why she treats Farsi like “a stench after a long day’s work.” She refuses to play along in a show-and-tell, defiantly bringing traditional Iranian music into class. “This is my song,” she says, sitting ramrod straight in her chair.

Elham wishes for a global history that had led to the primacy of the Persian Empire. Instead of being told to speak American, “All of us would speak Farsi.” They may agree about this, but Roya also says Elham is so obnoxious personally, in an English context she will have “no redeeming qualities.” This may be true, but Ashe adeptly makes all of Elham’s jagged edges—and there are many—totally understandable. Indeed, we cheer for her when she finally beats know-it-all Omid in a game of “Things you find in a kitchen.”

There are various twists as the play moves towards its conclusion, not cravenly deployed, but in the quiet, wry spirit of the play itself as it continues to question the relationships of language, identity, and place. It does not reach firm or didactic conclusions.

Instead, it proposes a series of convincing ideas that echo facets of each character. Marjan feels English and Farsi are at war in her head. Omid thinks it’s a “sort of miracle” to belong anywhere. Why does Marjan like everything, including him, in English, Omid wonders—disputing the class’ perception that his English is perfect. He knows all too well that it is not. “My English is—you can hear the gap between not from here, not from there. I think I live there: in that gap.”

Marjan’s years in Manchester, attempting to master English, made her “feel so loud all the time. Like all the worst parts of your voice are being filtered through a microphone. Your head hurts and the days feel longer. You go years without making anyone laugh.”

The final discussion between Marjan and Elham is also about language, and not an insult- or sniping-fest. “No one hates this language more than I hate,” Elham says of English. “I like my native tongue.”

“You are Iranian but your English is a lot of things,” Elham tells Marjan. “It wants to be American and some of the time British and now it does not know what it is. When I speak English, I know I will always be stranger.”

Everything said in English can be true about language, identity, and learning: Goli’s joy, Marjan and Omid’s blurred pleasure and cultural confusion, and Elham and Roya’s suspicion and bridling resentment. At the end, again unspoiled here, a final twist crystallizes the play’s most piercing linguistic moment—and a predominantly English-speaking audience is left exactly where it should be.