By Barry Willis
A 2008 Iranian class in English as a foreign language is the setting for a comedic examination of individual and cultural identity, at Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre, through May 7.
In the West Coast premiere of Sanaz Toossi’s English, four adult students of varying ages try the patience of teacher Marjan (Sahar Bibiyan) as they attempt to reach some degree of conversational competence and hope to sort out personal problems in the process.
…a delightful, emotionally engaging production…
The youngest one, Goli (Christine Mirzayan), never states her reasons for wanting to pass the national test for competence in English, but she has a jolly time working toward it. Elham (Mehry Eslaminia) hopes to go to medical school in Australia. Omid (Amir Malaklou), the sole male in the class, proves to be far more adept than he initially appears to be, for reasons that won’t be revealed here. Roya (Sarah Nina Hayon) the oldest of the bunch, is tackling the language so she can speak with her Canadian granddaughter.
Language barriers are among the richest tropes in comedy, and director Mina Morita mines many of them, from inept halting grammar and limited vocabularies to beginners’ blunders. Despite their teacher’s insistence that they speak only English in class, reinforced by a huge “ENGLISH ONLY” statement on the classroom’s dry-erasable board, in frustration they resort to their native Farsi, translated into perfectly articulate English. Thickly accented pidgin English conveys what they are trying to say in the new language. This bit of stagecraft may confuse some viewers.
The performance is lovely, if a bit slow in places. The cast is convincing throughout and laugh-out-loud funny at moments that segue into real angst. Like many current comedies, English transitions from hilarity to poignancy, such as in a scene late in the play when Omid and Marjan share a connection that won’t go anywhere beyond the classroom, but it’s one felt by the entire audience. Roya’s character arc is left dangling—a pity, because we would like to learn more about her. That’s also true to a certain extent about Elham.
English is a delightful, emotionally engaging production that may have special appeal to those interested in linguistics and cultural identity. Those who delight in the comedic potential of mangled language may also enjoy David Ives’ short play The Universal Language (part of his All in the Timing collection) and David Sedaris’ wonderful novel Me Talk Pretty One Day.
|Berkeley Repertory Theatre
|Through May 7th
|2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA 94704
|$43 - $119
|Max in each category is 5/5
|Aisle Seat Review Pick?
|"...Both contemplative and comic, it nails every opportunity for big laughs as its English-learning characters struggle with accents and idioms. But the laughter provides cover for the deeper idea that their struggle is not just linguistic..."
|The New York Times
|"...Personalities will emerge, relationships will form, secrets will be revealed. Some of the students will succeed and others will fall by the wayside.
All of this happens but, at the same time, the play is not predictable, thanks to Toossi’s subtle writing and profound observations about the ways in which language shapes identity, experience and a sense of belonging in the world..."
|"...Language in “English” becomes the scapegoat for everything that’s wrong with us, the true reason for all our best qualities. If we’re rude or loud or dumb, soft or smart or charming, it might all just be the language we’re speaking, along with all its attendant norms and foibles..."
|San Francisco Chronicle