English by Sanaz Toossi, directed by Knud Adams. Roundabout Theatre Company, photo by Ahron R. Foster.
Articles, Current Issue, Volume 13

Performance Review: English by Sanaz Toossi, directed by Knud Adams

ENGLISH. By Sanaz Toossi. Directed by Knud Adams. Roundabout Theatre Company, New York City. February 18, 2022.

Reviewed by Marvin Carlson, Graduate Center, CUNY

In the new globalized society, language is one of the most important tools anyone can utilize, and the international dominance of English in politics, business, and technology makes its acquisition a major concern for young people around the world, even in countries with whose relationship with the West in general and the United States in particular have often been troubled, like Iran. Toossi, herself an Iranian American, provides a gently amusing, intelligent and warm-hearted portrayal of a group of such aspiring students in an Iranian city near Tehran in 2008 in her new play, English, an important contribution to the growing number of significant American plays dealing with current relationships between East and West.

When the play opens we see a simple classroom with a whiteboard, chairs, a teacher’s desk and curtained windows on one side.  The class teacher Marjan (Marjan Neshat) arrives first, and writes in bold letters on the whiteboard: ENGLISH ONLY, a sort of warning quite familiar to anyone who has ever taken a basic language class.  In fact the play follows this direction much more faithfully than its characters.  They often slip into Farsi, but the playwright (and the actors) signal this in a simple and highly effective manner.  When the characters are speaking Farsi, they speak a relaxed, rapid-fire, colloquial American English, but when they are speaking their still rough-hewn English, they speak it as their real-life counterparts would do—articles and connectives disappear; certain sounds, like R’s and W’s, present hurdles; accents are misplaced and strange pauses erupt when the right word doesn’t come to mind.  This device further adds to the individuality and complexity of the students, since there is clearly no direct correlation between their fluency or even their style in their native language and in the one they are trying to learn.

English by Sanaz Toossi, directed by Knud Adams. Roundabout Theatre Company.

The four students in the class are all preparing to take their TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exams, but their motives for doing so, their attitudes and their abilities are nicely contrasted.  The sweet and somewhat naïve Goli (Ava Lalezarzadeh) stands at one end of this range.  She fell in love with English as a child, and even though she is aware of its usefulness in a possible career, her real motive is a disinterested pleasure in the language itself.  Almost the opposite is the surly and difficult Elham (Tala Ashe) whose motivations are anything but aesthetic.  She received top scores in her Medical College Admission Tests, which earned her admission to an Australian school, but she must pass her TOEFL exams as well to prove her ability in English and she confesses to Marjan that she has already failed them several times.  We come to realize that this pressure and her resentment do much to explain her attitude, as well as the fact that her English is clearly the worst in the class.  Like all the women in the play, she wears the obligatory hijab, but far back on her head, always nearly falling off, a striking symbol of her defiant spirit.  Omid (Hadi Tabbal), who is preparing for his green card interview, is the most fluent, and seems to have something of a crush on the teacher, regularly showing up in her office to join her in watching rom-coms like Notting Hill.  Finally, Roya (Pooya Mokhseni), the oldest member of the class, has no professional interest in English, but has been invited to join her son, his wife, and her grandson in Canada, but with the understanding that she must learn English.

The givens of the play might easily lead to a sit-com deriving its humor from the inevitably somewhat grotesque attempts to negotiate another language, humor that goes all the way back to the Greeks.  Or it could deal much more seriously with the cultural tensions between today’s Iran and the West, America in particular.  But although traces of both of these approaches appear, the production takes the more challenging approach of depicting a group of dimensional human beings, in a humanity we recognize, dealing with a situation of tension with deep resonance in our contemporary world.

The success of the production largely depends of course on the talents of its excellent ensemble and Toossi’s warm and insightful text, but their accomplishment owes much to the other artists involved in the production, headed by director Knud Adams.   Marsha Ginsberg has designed a highly effective setting for the production.  The most important element is the rather simple classroom, but it is mounted on a turntable, which can move to give us a view into the class from outside, through the large windows in one wall, onto the street itself, or into Marjan’s office, where she is visited by Omid.  The subtle lighting of Reza Behjat much increases the effectiveness of both scenes and transitions, as does the piano accompaniment of Sinan Refik Zafar.

As we witness this set of individuals, both alien and yet strangely like ourselves at a critical turning point in their lives, we are left pondering what the future holds for them as they face the challenges not only of a new language, but a new culture.  It is a situation facing people all over the world today, a situation often dictated not by choice but by necessity, physical or economic, which gives the play a relevance and a resonance unusual in the contemporary theatre.


Marvin Carlson is the founding editor of Arab Stages and Sidney E. Cohn Professor emeritus of theatre and performance, comparative literature and middle eastern studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.  He is the author of many essays and books in theatre studies, the most recent of which is Theatre and Islam (Bloomsbury, 2019).


Arab Stages
Volume 13 (Fall 2022)
©2022 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

Founders: Marvin Carlson and Frank Hentschker

Editor-in-Chief: Marvin Carlson

Editorial and Advisory Board: Fawzia Afzal-Khan, Dina Amin, Khalid Amine, Dalia Basiouny, Katherine Donovan, Masud Hamdan, Sameh Hanna, Rolf C. Hemke, Katherine Hennessey, Areeg Ibrahim, Jamil Khoury, Dominika Laster, Margaret Litvin, Rebekah Maggor, Safi Mahfouz, Robert Myers, Michael Malek Naijar, Hala Nassar, George Potter, Juan Recondo, Nada Saab, Asaad Al-Saleh, Torange Yeghiazarian, Edward Ziter.

Managing Editors: Melissa Flower Gladney and Juhyun Woo

 

Table of Contents:

Playing the Street: Syrian Musicians in Istanbul by Jonathan H. Shannon

It’s Only Funny with Stage Directions by Laila Sajir, Introduction by Andrew Goldberg

Hotter Than Egypt by Yussef El Guindi, directed by John Langs, reviewed by Michael Malek Najjar

English by Sanaz Toossi, directed by Knud Adams, reviewed by Marvin Carlson

Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Hassan Hajiyah, reviewed by Katherine Hennessey

Wish You Were Here and First Down reviewed by Renate Mattar

Birds of a Kind by Wajdi Mouawad, directed by Robert Schuster, reviewed by Marvin Carlson

Drowning in Cairo by Adam Ashraf Elsayigh, directed by Sahar Assaf, reviewer by Samer Al-Saber

Arab and Middle Eastern Productions at the Avignon 2022 Festival by Philipa Wehle and Marvin Carlson

Review of Stories Under Occupation and Other Plays from Palestine edited by Samer Al-Saber and Gary M. English, reviewed by Zeina Salame

Review of Shakespeare on the Arabian Peninsula written by Katherine Hennessey, reviewed by George Potter

Review of Middle Eastern American Theatre: Communities, Cultures and Artists written by Michael Malek Najjar, reviewed by Robert Myers

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