If you’ve ever tried, as an adult, to learn a new language, you know how painful it can be; it’s bad enough to hear yourself mangling Italian, but worse to hear it mangling you. For those of us accustomed to sounding sharp with our words, it can come as quite a blow to discover the shabby figure we cut in the ill-fitting suit of someone else’s.
How our mother tongue gives us voice yet limits our world — and how a new tongue expands that world yet may strangle our voice — is the subject of “English,” a rich new play by Sanaz Toossi that opened on Tuesday at the Linda Gross Theater. It’s both contemplative as well as comical, with its English-learning characters struggling with accents and idioms. The laughter is a cover for the deeper truth that their struggle goes beyond linguistic.
The play is a coproduction between the Roundabout and Atlantic theater companies. It was set in Iran in 2008 against a backdrop that included travel restrictions and family separations. Each of the four students preparing for the Test of English in a Foreign Language, or Toefl at a Karaj storefront school, is a student with a different reason for enrolling.
Goli (18-year-old Ava Lalezarzadeh) is happy because of the new opportunities and the promise they bring. “English is the rice,” she explains in the inadvertent poetry of the partially fluent. “You take some rice, and you make the rice whatever you want.”
The others are more open-minded. Dignified Roya (Pooya Mohseni) is there only because her son, who lives in “the Canada” with his wife and daughter, has insisted she speak English if she wants to live with them. He will not have his daughter’s assimilation threatened, he has warned, by a grandmother cooing in Farsi.
Roya will not express anger about the situation. She tends to suppress it, leaving her son with hilariously passive-aggressive voicemail messages, in which she provides evidence of her growing fluency. “I know all the numbers now,” she tells him. “Forty-three. Five hundred thirty-eight. And seven.”
For Elham (Tala ashe), however, anxiety is a real concern. She has failed five times the Toefl and must pass it again if she wants to be granted provisional admission at an Australian medical school. When the Toefl teacher, Marjan (Marjan Neshat), tells her that “English isn’t your enemy,” she answers, “It is feeling like yes.” Her accent, she adds, is “a war crime.”
Marjan learned English while living in Manchester for nine years. She began to feel the thrill of connection and the fog of alienation slowly lifting. However, now that she is back home in Iran, her English is beginning to fall apart, at least compared to Omid (Hadi Tabbal), who has a very low accent and a unique vocabulary. Playing a game in which everyone must name items of clothing as quickly as possible while tossing a ball, he wins handily, wowing the others with “windbreaker.”
The six-week course consists of 22 scenes that represent lessons, office hours and breaks. We get to know each of the five characters very well. However, they are just as elusive in real life as we are. Their progress is unpredictable too. They sometimes stall and then move forward with new words, or even new ideas.
Not that we are told this; we just see it happen, thanks to Toossi’s clever theatricalization of the process. (When the characters speak English, they do so haltingly and with an accent; when they speak Farsi, which we hear in English, it’s swift and unaccented.) Even Elham, her W’s no longer sounding like V’s, and her tempo improved from largo to allegretto, is eventually able to pose a challenge to Omid’s fluency.
The mystery of that fluency (why does he know “windbreaker”?) is one of the more obvious tensioning devices in a play that, despite its pleasures — but also at the root of them — has a somewhat schematic structure. It’s a lifeboat movie that shows the immediate differentiation of characters and their shifting alliances against a looming threat. The final resolution involves the…