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Review: In English, Iranian Students Articulate Dreams and Disappointments

Sanaz Toossi's world premiere play takes place in a TOEFL class in Karaj.

Hadi Tabbal and Marjan Neshat star in Sanaz Toossi's English, directed by Knud Adams, at Atlantic Theater Company.
(© Ahron R. Foster)

If you want to be part of the global middle class, you must know English. Sure, you can be comfortable, and even very rich, as a monolingual person in China or Indonesia — countries big enough to hold the dreams of ambitious people. But if you want to study abroad, converse with people beyond your borders, or do business in the largest economy on Earth, it must be in the lingua franca, which is now English.

The students in Sanaz Toossi's English know this, even if they don't love it. Now making its world premiere at Atlantic Theater Company, this intimate classroom drama is about a group of Iranians studying for the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), a requirement for enrolling in most English-speaking universities as a foreign student. "I have this amazing dream sometimes that the Persian Empire kept growing," says Elham (Tala Ashe). "And Cyrus the Great would still be our king. Instead of the Americans, the British, everyone telling us what to speak and how to say it, all of us would speak Farsi."

Ava Lalezarzadeh, Tala Ashe, and Pooya Mohseni star in Sanaz Toossi's English, directed by Knud Adams, at Atlantic Theater Company.
(© Ahron R. Foster)

But it's 2008, not 550 B.C., and Elham has been accepted into med school in Australia. So, she learns English, a language she openly admits she hates. Her teacher, Marjan (Marjan Neshat), is skeptical that anyone can master a language through hostile takeover. Eighteen-year-old Goli (a sweetly innocent Ava Lalezarzadeh) is the youngest student in the class, and a world of opportunity awaits if she passes the TOEFL. At 54, Roya (Pooya Mohseni) is the oldest student, and she knows from experience: Her son left Iran at a young age and now lives in Canada with his wife and daughter. He has invited mom to join them — provided she speaks well enough to maintain his English-only household. The student who needs the least help is Omid (Hadi Tabbal, as charming as a salesman who lulls you into believing he's not selling anything). English comes naturally to him, and his accent is passably American. Elham loathes him for that.

Ever the teacher's pet, Omid stays behind with Marjan after class to watch English movies, like A Room with a View. The hat tip to Merchant-Ivory feels appropriate. Like those films, Toossi's script contains a quiet power: Characters are introduced, and we slowly get to know them as their dreams and resentments are unveiled over the course of 100 minutes. Not everything is explicit, mysteries are allowed to linger, and the unsaid regularly hovers over the stage in moments of exquisite dramatic tension. English feels like a breath of fresh air when so many new plays seem to follow a thesis with which the playwright delights in bludgeoning the audience. It's a remarkably mature off-Broadway debut for Toossi.

Marsha Ginsberg designed the set for Sanaz Toossi's English at Atlantic Theater Company.
(© Ahron R. Foster)

Like he did with Eboni Booth's Paris, director Knud Adams proves a steady hand in staging a play in which not everything is spelled out. We instantly understand and accept the language convention (everything is in English, but when the actors speak rapidly with an American accent, we know the characters are speaking Farsi; when they speak slowly with a Tehrani accent, they are speaking English). This allows us to understand the gap between how the characters sound and how they would prefer to sound — the massive chasm between the world as it is and the world as we would like it to be.

Marsha Ginsberg's gently rotating set provides for cinematic angles, with naturalistic lighting by Reza Behjat. Sinan Refik Zafar underscores scene transitions with impressionistic piano music that allows us a moment to reflect without obstructing the forward motion of the play. Before a word is spoken, Enver Chakartash's costume design gives us our first clue about the characters: Elham wears her hijab (compulsory for all women in public in Iran) as far back on her head as can possibly be sustained in gravity, showing us that she is the kind of woman who does what she must, begrudgingly.

Tala Ashe and Marjan Neshat appear in Sanaz Toossi's English, directed by Knud Adams, at Atlantic Theater Company.
(© Ahron R. Foster)

Ashe fills out the rest in a performance that is both abrasive and deeply sympathetic. We raise an eyebrow at Elham's occasional cruelty to her fellow students, and yet we cannot help but understand her frustration as a clever woman disadvantaged by the lottery of birth and history. As Roya, Mohseni heartbreakingly conveys the monkey's paw wish of having children who realize your dreams for them, and then find they have little room for you in their perfect lives. She's the Iranian Mama Rose. Neshat delivers a fascinatingly inscrutable performance as Marjan, a woman who lived in England for a decade, but made the decision to move back to Iran. Contentment layers over regret as Marjan counts her blessings while silently wondering, what if? As in life, there are no clear-cut lessons in English — and that makes it well worth your time.