The In-Person Off-Broadway Review: ATC’s English
From a large rectangular window, the curtains are pulled back to the mystical sounds of piano, and we are given a glimpse into something special and superb, as Atlantic Theater Company‘s impressive and thoughtful production of English rotates its way into our view. Playwright Sanaz Toossi (Wish You Were Here) has crafted a brilliantly complex tale that maps out our frustrations and the deep humanistic consequences that come when trying to ingest a new language into our souls. Resonating deeply, the stories told here, thanks to the superb direction of Knud Adams (ATC’s Paris), dig deep into the ideas of acceptance, belonging, and connection, finding humor and honor in the difficult framework of a new complex language.
Playing out with a wise composition of humor and pain on a stark set etched with other world complexities by Marsha Ginsberg (Barrow St.’s The Effect), with strong costuming by Enver Chakartash (VT/Broadway’s Is This A Room), lighting by Reza Behjat (Public’s Out of Time), and sound by Sinana Refik Zafar (Broadway’s What the Constitution…), the play finds its force in its interconnected wit and its multiple angled vantage points. The action and interaction mostly takes place in the bland classroom where four students have come together in Karaj, a large suburb of Tehran, Iran to prepare for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (or TOEFL). But what transpires here is anything but bland. It is alive with humanistic honest interactions that resonate on more levels than we can fathom in just one viewing.
Surging forth over a quick 115 minutes, the play unpacks the personal speed bumps for each of these four willing participants who hope that passing this test will usher them into a new chapter in life. Instructed with a kind force by their teacher, Marjan, played with an empathetic edge by Marjan Neshat (PH’s Wish You Were Here), the students, each with their own structural imbalance, finds engagement and conflict within those four walls, particularly as Marjan insists that they inadvertently open themselves up to vulnerability by only speaking English in class. A frustrating stance, one that I personally know all too well from years of unsuccessfully trying to learn French, and then Spanish and Italian in college and in private tutoring, but the stance clearly pushes the engine forward within an accurate ideal.
Speaking English, we are told, doesn’t want to be poetry, not like Farsi, which the characters do slip into every so often, and although the play is completely written in English, we are conscious in the most elegant of ways when the language shifts to their primary. It’s a beautifully constructed and performed angle that subtly emphasizes the exploration and digestion of what it means to speak out and be understood.
When the students struggle with their English, we hear the hesitation and the accents, but when “Farsi is winning” and they switch to their native tongue, against the wishes of their teacher, their real selves are cleverly exposed. The strongest of the bunch, or should I say the most conflicted, is Elham, a hopeful med school student played intensely by Tala Ashe (PH’s The Profane). She can’t help herself. It’s as if she has to lash out at everyone to hold her place and position. She’s edgy and hard to like, although Ashe portrays her with such compassion, we can’t help but feel for her.
Another who seems to have an interior life that is working hard to stay as secret as possible, is the complex and rigid Roya, played stoically by the engaging Pooya Mohseni (Mari Walker’s “See You Then“) whose estranged son has emigrated to Canada and learning English is the most obvious requirement needed so that she might be given the permission to see and know her granddaughter. The youngest and by far the most compassionately engaging is the smart Goli, tenderly portrayed by the wonderful Ava Lalezarzadeh (“Winter of ’79“), who finds a way to connect to us all as she works hard to unlock a more promising future.
There is one other, and his position in the class is more fascinatingly complex. The handsome Omid, delicately portrayed by the excellent Hadi Tabbal (Public’s The Vagrant Trilogy), is obviously more advanced in his learning and seems to have a secret of his own as to why he is there. His flirtation with the teacher has a charm and a rom-com Hollywood appeal, beautifully mirrored in the movie watching done to take in the sound of the language, but we can’t quite make him out, that is until it all gets thrown in the center.
Director Adams finds an energy and a pace that works, bridging the gaps and unearthing the undercurrents beautifully in the solid direction of this five-star world premiere from Atlantic Theater Company and Roundabout Theatre Company. The big questions of assimilation and culture are stamped with authentic singularity on the outcome of a pass or fail test rotate out from all angles, with the personal secrets held close laid out for all to see within those lessons. The characters and their subtleties deliver the meditation with a clear tender ease, producing a clever production and an insightful play that might just be the best of the season. Each moment sings with triumph, passing with high marks from every angled direction and purposeful portrayal of language.