I can empathize. As someone who takes five classes a week in three different foreign languages – it has been my way of getting through the pandemic – the subject of Sanaz Toossi’s new play not only struck a nerve. It hit my pocket book. Aptly titled “English,” Toossi’s one-act play opened Tuesday at the Atlantic Theater Company in a co-production with the Roundabout Theatre Company.
As with some of the students in Toossi’s classroom drama, I have no talent for learning foreign languages despite all the courses taken, all the money spent. I know the fear, the awkwardness, that constant feeling of stupidity. Watching “English,” I also felt the tedium of sitting in a classroom – or Zoom class — while people struggle desperately to express themselves. Yes, the tedium. My classes tend to be 90 minutes. Toossi’s play is a little longer.
Set in Iran in 2008, the four students here (Tala Ashe, Ava Lalezarzadeh, Pooya Mohseni and Hadi Tabbal) and their teacher (Marjan Neshat) speak fluent American English when they’re supposed to be speaking Farsi, and a very accented broken English when they’re supposed to be speaking English. In other words, we in the audience can always understand what they’re saying except when the accents get a little too thick or the English gets really mangled, which is when Toossi reveals her sense of humor. Anyone who watched Ricky Ricardo “splain” himself has heard these kinds of malapropism jokes before.
My take away from “English” is definitely not the message of identity and pride that Toossi has in mind. For me, the teacher Marjan (Neshat exudes patience throughout) is trying hard to teach disrespectful students who don’t really want to learn. For example, when the teacher insists they speak English, a couple of the students believe she is infringing on their identity and insist on speaking their native tongue so they can really “express” themselves. One student gets so incensed she plays a Farsi song in class.
For me, this is the moment I would demand my money back. We’re learning Mandarin so let’s listen to Lady Gaga?
Another such tuition-refund moment comes when the students perform a language exercise throwing a small green ball at each other. When they catch it, they have to speak an English word on a given topic, such as “kitchen” or “sports.” The exercise adds action to a drama that needs it, but this exercise is trauma-inducing for anyone trying to verbalize a foreign word.
But back to those recalcitrant students: They shame Marjan for having let people in England, where she lived for nine years, call her Mary. That’s a lesson learned. This week, I must remember to tell my Italian instructor to stop calling me Robertino.
Of course, that’s the difference between language as hobby and language as destiny. These Iranian students’ future depends on passing the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). The anxiety and fear of failing permeates the actors’ performances, and there’s something else they’re even better at communicating: resentment. “English” was conceived as Toossi’s MFA thesis, and running around the edges of her play is the inherent patriarchy of formal education. Toossi tweaks that indictment by having the teacher be female, but the subjugation of the students by an illiberal force propagating Western culture remains. That’s tyranny. The other choice is chaos — let the students run the classroom and no one learns. “English” explores the tyranny, but fudges the chaos. For example, left unexplained is how one incompetent student eventually aces her test.
Theatergoers should know that “English” breaks through the shackles of that language by having the entire final scene spoken in Farsi. Surtitles are not provided. The last time I saw an English-language work with an entire scene performed in another language was Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas’ otherwise wonderful “The Light in the Piazza” in 2005. The idea is to put us in the uncomfortable position of the character(s). But we’re not in Italy, we’re not in Iran. We’re in a theater, and the feeling communicated is “I could be home watching ‘Jame Jam’ instead.”
That respect for the audience is reflected elsewhere in the production. Knud Adams directs the play on a turntable set, designed by Marsha Ginsberg, that occasionally puts a big support post between you and an actor’s face.