Review: Learning ‘English,’ When Your Accent Is a ‘War Crime’

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Not that we are told this; we just see it happen, thanks to Toossi’s clever theatricalization of the process. (When the characters speak English, they do so haltingly and with an accent; when they speak Farsi, which we hear in English, it’s swift and unaccented.) Even Elham, her W’s no longer sounding like V’s, and her tempo improved from largo to allegretto, is eventually able to pose a challenge to Omid’s fluency.

The mystery of that fluency (why does he know “windbreaker”?) is one of the more obvious tensioning devices in a play that, despite its pleasures — but also at the root of them — has a somewhat schematic structure. Like a lifeboat movie, it features the immediate and broad differentiation of characters, their shifting alliances in the face of a looming threat and an eventual resolution involving the revelation of lies and someone cast overboard.

Nor are its themes entirely novel; the drama of superimposing one language on another is at the heart of works as widely varied as Brian Friel’s “Translations” (in which a 19th-century cartographer is charged with rendering Irish place names in English) and the hyper-asterisked Leo Rosten novel “The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N,” set among immigrants in a night school English class and turned into a musical in 1968.

But the delicacy of Toossi’s development handily makes up for both problems, especially the hysteria of lifeboat melodrama; in a recent interview in The New York Times, she told my colleague Alexis Soloski that “writing a trauma play makes me want to dry heave.”

So in dealing with characters who could easily be exoticized in their chadors, Toossi has chosen instead to focus on their familiarity; like most of us, they deal less with the disaster of geopolitics than with an atmosphere of mild if daily discomfort. As such, the insights here are deep but never shattering, as when Roya perceives the crucial distinction between the verbs “visit” and “live” in one of her son’s messages. If the world’s happiness does not depend on it, a grandmother’s does.

The director Knud Adams gently underlines the calm, almost classical rhythms of Toossi’s writing. Chopinesque piano solos play between scenes. As the play contemplates the question of language from several angles, the cube-like set, by Marsha Ginsberg, slowly rotates, offering in turn a street view of the building, the classroom interior and an entry portico. The cast is uniformly excellent, in a suitably unshowy but fully lived-in way.


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