It’s hard to write about something you love, for fear of letting it down. And doubly hard when the crush object is something as delicately structured as English, Sanaz Toossi’s new play, which is currently at the Atlantic (and should enjoy a rich afterlife when its run concludes). Toossi is the daughter of Iranian immigrants, and her play is set in the city of Karaj in the troubled year of 2008, with domestic restrictions tight and the world economy teetering. But this isn’t a story about war or revolution. It is instead a story, a frequently funny one, about overcoming a seemingly insurmountable obstacle: the Test for English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL.
Test prep teacher Marjan (Marjan Neshat) takes the concerns and demands of her four students in stride. Roya (Pooya Mohseni), a grandmother, wants to join her son and his family in “the Canada,” but he doesn’t want her contaminating his assimilating brood with her native Farsi. The stakes are equally high for Elham (Tala Ashe), a five-time TOEFL loser, who must pass his sixth time to hang onto her provisional acceptance at an Australian med school. (“My accent is a war crime,” she laments.) Goli (Ava Lalezarzadeh), a bubbly teenager, figures speaking English will give her a leg up on adulthood. Less clear is why Omid, the one male in the class (played by Hadi Tabbal), is there–his English is mostly excellent, rather exceeding Marjan’s, who learned while living abroad in England. There’s an enigmatic quality to all these characters and this play, however, which reveals itself through games and roleplay in the classroom, and one-and-one encounters outside its confines.
The 30-year-old playwright proves herself a master at malapropism, but that’s the easiest part. (In case you’re wondering how this works, the actors speak fluent English when communicating in Farsi, and broken English when puzzling over the unfamiliar language.) What’s going on between the lines is as of much importance–Roya’s one-sided voicemail conversations with her son (as she tries to prove her English-language fluency), the seeming battle of wits between Elham and Marjan, and Marjan and Omid’s mutual curiosity about one another, with an undercurrent of longing. Like a game of chess the one-act production moves at a deliberate but never sluggish pace, and before our eyes the characters recalibrate over its length. There are no bombshells here, just a steady, rippling volley of emotions in two languages.
Credit director Knud Adams for an exceptionally fluid production, with just one hiccup–a revolving classroom set by Marsha Ginsberg that, depending on where it lands, can block some of the action for audience members. But it’s never for long, and all the design elements (Enver Chakartash’s costumes, Reza Behjat’s lighting, and Sinan Refik Zafar’s sound design) support the playwright’s particular vision of Iranian society. More than supportive is the entire ensemble, seamlessly interacting–though I must single out the combative Elham of Tala Ashe, a family favorite from the CW’s Legends of Tomorrow superhero show. This is the first play I’ve seen her in since her TV role, and Zari has stage chops.
How much did I admire English? All I can say is that I shed a hopeful tear at its end, following a sequence I could not understand. Language puts up barriers, but English finds a way through them, into the heart.