Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut and the Berkshires

Barrington Stage Company
Review by Fred Sokol

Also see Fred's recent review of The 12

Nazanin Nour and Babak Tafti
Photo by Daniel Rader
English, a Pulitzer Prize winning play this very year, is cool and cute for a significant time before it becomes far more compelling during the final third of its one hour and forty minutes. At Barrington Stage through October 15, Sanaz Toossi's scripting focuses upon four students based in Karaj, Iran, who are preparing to take a Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).

The playwright also appears in the current cast as Elham, a young woman who did well on the MCAT and very much hopes to become a doctor. Goli (Narges Kalogli), animated and nervous at the outset, is charming and shining. Roya (Pooya Mohseni) is older than the other students and wishes to speak more easily with a grandchild. She needs to convince her son that she can speak English before he will welcome her to their home in Canada. Omid (Babak Tafti), anticipating that he will get a green card, already speaks English fluently. Pivotal to all that evolves is the warm, gracious instructor, Marjan (Nazanin Nour), someone who has fine listening skills.

When those on stage are expressing themselves in Farsi, the audience actually hears them articulating smoothly in American English. On the other hand, their literal English words are delivered in a more halting manner as accents are revealed. For example, Elham's self assessment is "like idiot" whereupon Marjan explains that "like an idiot" is the correct phrase. It might take a theatregoer, without advance notice, a few minutes to figure this out. Frankly and happily, there's no shortage of comedy within the beginning of English.

Marjan's complexity intrigues, since she was in Manchester, England, for nine years where she was known as Mary before coming back to Iran. One senses an ambivalence, that she was a different individual while in Great Britain, but she's now fully dedicated to her students. She is the one facilitating the course with a complete realization that mastering English is significantly challenging for most in her room.

Knud Adams directs the BSC show as he did the world premiere Atlantic/Roundabout co-production. Adams keeps the dialogue moving and maximizes opportunities for actor movement. Hence, the performance flows forward within the context of Afsoon Pajoufar's set. A rectangular table is the focal point (and several audience members sit on stage to either side of it). A rear entrance and exit room gives all of the many scenes depth.

So it goes until Elham wonders if Marjan likes her. Elham hasn't been able to pass the TOEFL on five previous tries and she must in order to go to medical school in Australia. The exchange between these two women at this juncture signals that English is taking on greater urgency. The new tone carries forth during incisive dialogue between Omid and Marian. He asks her why she came back. Further, Omid speaks perfect American English, which begs the question: why is he taking this course?

Sanaz Toossi's play is gently amusing and relevant before it transitions to a somewhat more intense conclusion. It's intriguing to see the woman who wrote this play engage herself as one of the characters she created. Elham is not especially kind but rather demanding and she does, ultimately, succeed. Perhaps she has been desperate. Elham, late in the play admits, "I like my native tongue." Toossi, as an actor, depicts this character as one who goes after the elegant, oftentimes giving teacher, Marjan. Marjan was insistent when she said, "English always" to Goli early on. One has the feeling, however, that Marjan might feel she made a mistake by leaving England. She goes on about her very positive time in Manchester in a late speech.

This presentation works well as a neatly balanced ensemble piece. The actors throw a ball and various words at one another over the six-week time period. For more than the first hour of English, that's delightful, but it's not until the final portion that Sanaz Toossi, as author, draws us further in with sharpened insight and stimulating moment-to-moment theater.

English runs through October 15, 2023, at Barrington Stage Company, 30 Union St., Pittsfield MA. For tickets and information, please call 413-236-8888 or visit