Berkeley Rep’s production of Sanaz Toossi’s English finds humor in the growing pains felt when learning a new language while navigating issues of identity and belonging with care.
English, Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison St., through May 7
Set in a classroom in Iran in 2008, the contemplative comedy follows four students — Elham (Mehry Eslaminia), an outspoken young woman who wants to go to medical school, Roya (Sarah Nina Hayon), a grandmother who is learning English because she wants to live with her adult son in Canada, Goli (Christine Mirzayan), a bubbly 18-year-old excited to learn, and Omid (Amir Malaklou), a young man whose English skills clearly exceed those of his classmates — as they prepare for the Test of English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL, required for international students who hope to enroll in a college in a primarily English-speaking country.
Their instructor, Marjan (Sahar Bibiyan) is patient and kind. She has just one non-negotiable rule: This is an “English Only” classroom.
“In this room we are not Iranian,” Marjan says. Halfway through the course, she is finally fed up with the repeated offenders. “We feel our lungs in English. Can we agree on that?”
Tensions rise as Marjan starts a tally on her whiteboard to keep track of every time her students speak in Farsi. Reach five, and you’re kicked out of class for the day. Her favoritism toward one student adds fuel to fire.
The script is tight, and the pacing right. While there’s plenty of comic relief sprinkled throughout (including an amusing jab at Julia Roberts’ teeth), that’s not where English shines brightest.
Roya, the grandmother, delivers the evening’s most powerful moment as the backdrop behind her deepens in hue.
She stands in the hallway, looking at the classroom from the outside in as she leaves a voicemail for her son Nader, who now goes by the name Nate in “The Canada” with his white wife and daughter. He hasn’t been picking up her calls; he tells her he’s up to his ears in work.
“Nate is sound dog make,” Roya tells her son in her accented English, hurt seeping from each line. “I hope you not forget, Nate is not your name.”
The play premiered as English Only in February 2022 at the Linda Gross Theater in New York, and won best new American play at the Obie Awards in February 2023. A co-production of the Atlantic and Roundabout theater companies, it featured a fancy set — a rotating stage meant to literally shift the audience’s perspective. Berkeley Rep’s version works well without it.
English is by no means subtle in its use of themes of assimilation and alienation. It came as no surprise when I learned Toossi wrote the play as her thesis for her MFA in dramatic writing at New York University.
With each short scene, more is revealed about each character’s hopes and dreams and their reasons for taking the class. We feel the yearning of someone shunned by their own blood, the frustration of not being able to articulate your thoughts in an uncomfortable language, the pain of having grown up in two worlds but never feeling like you belong in either.
We sympathize with Elham, the hopeful medical student, as she imagines how easy her life might be if the tables had been turned long ago — if Persia had taken over the world and Farsi was the language used universally, and not English. Her anger is justified. The TOEFL, which includes a speaking portion, docks points for pronunciation errors and therefore penalizes some accents. (Not British or French accents, though, as she points out. Those are the accents people like.) She’s failed the exam five times.
As children, we look up to our teachers. We see them not as people with lives outside the classroom, but as unchanging figures who hold all the answers. In English we find that Marjan, the instructor, is not exempt from change after all.
Over the course of word games, listening exercises and show-and-tells, the students start to shed their accents. But we find that Marjan’s English, once white-sounding enough to fool native speakers, is starting to deteriorate, and that maybe that deep anxiety is why she so desperately wants to reject anything Farsi.
“The Farsi is winning,” Marjan admits to the class, but mostly to herself. “I guess I belong here.”
English runs 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission at Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre through May 7. Masks are required. Tickets $43 to $119, subject to change, can be purchased online or at 510-647-2949.