'English' at Berkeley Rep: What have we learned?

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday April 11, 2023
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Mehry Eslaminia (Elham) and Christine Mirzayan (Goli) in the West Coast premiere of Sanaz Toossi's English. (photo: Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)
Mehry Eslaminia (Elham) and Christine Mirzayan (Goli) in the West Coast premiere of Sanaz Toossi's English. (photo: Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

Overall, I'd give Sanaz Toossi's "English," set in an Iranian ESL class and now playing at the Berkeley Rep, a solid B. But three of its cast members deliver A-plus performances that elevate the entire production to honor roll status.

In the role of Goli, a cheerful, curious high school student, Christine Mirzayan lights up the stage. Bashful, mischievous and ultimately proud of her accomplishments, Goli has a completely believable guilelessness. Learning a new language is a playful adventure for her.

Mehry Eslaminia is also superb as Elham, an accomplished pre-med student who has repeatedly failed to pass the TOEFL exam that will earn her the right to matriculate at an Australian university.

More sophisticated than her younger classmate, she wrestles a stubborn inner resistance to mastering English, as if absorbing the language might somehow dilute her proud Persian soul.

In the smaller role of Roya, Sarah Nina Hayon is convincingly interested in English only as a way to stay connected with her granddaughter in Canada. It's a necessary nuisance. When her expat son rejects her loving efforts, her heart breaks, and her broken English is discarded as useless.

These three utterly unactorly performances have a clarity and coherence that contrast with the muddy subtexts of Toossi's script that leave the play's other two characters as ciphers.

Omid, the sole male student (Amir Malaklou) and Marjan, the teacher (Sahar Bibiyan) are difficult to connect with; I say this as an audience member but suspect the actors may have a similar challenge.

Both Marjan and Omid have spent time living in more socially liberal English-speaking countries: She lived in the U.K. for nearly a decade. Toward the play's end, we learn that he was raised in the U.S. but returned with his Iranian parents as a young teen.

She never explains why she came back. He never says anything to compare the two cultures he's lived in. In a play that's ostensibly about language, this lack of articulation is frustrating.

Director Mina Morita takes advantage of every opportunity to bring gentle humor to the proceedings and keeps things moving at a brisk pace throughout the evening. But there's only so much that can be made of Toosi's frustratingly elusive text.

"English" needs more of a lesson plan.

"English," through May 7. $24-$123. Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison St. (510) 647-2949. www.berkeleyrep.org

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