Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

The Old Globe
Review by Rick Pender

Pooya Mohseni, Tara Grammy, Ari Derambakhsh,
Joe Joseph, and Mary Apick

Photo by Rick Soublet
Sanaz Toossi's 2023 Pulitzer Prize-winning play English has been a successful production for The Old Globe, which has extended its run beyond the originally announced closing. Staged by Arya Shahi with a cast of actors of Iranian descent, English tells the story of four adult students in Karaj, Iran, just east of Tehran, in 2008. They are everyday people, speakers of Farsi, who hope to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), which can open doors that might make a difference in their lives. While they live under a repressive government, their attitudes are not political–even though events happen in the time just after the controversial presidential election that led to the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Toossi's play, however, is a comedy told through realistic dramatic portraits of people striving to learn a complex language quite different from their own. This process is conveyed from the play's opening moment when teacher Marjan (Pooya Mohseni) enters her stark classroom and places a simple sign on her desk: "ENGLISH ONLY." She expects the students in this advanced class to increase their fluency by speaking exclusively–if haltingly–in English. Most of them struggle to do this, frequently expressing their frustration in fluid, uninflected American English, the stand-in for Farsi. Much of the show's humor comes as Marjan pushes them back to their halting skills, eventually handing red cards to anyone who drops back into Farsi. Marjan, who we learn spent nearly a decade in England, speaks almost constantly in deliberate, erudite English.

The students have very different motivations. Teenager Goli (Ari Derambakhsh) is enamored of American pop culture; in one scene, she brings a CD of Ricky Martin's raucous "She Bangs" for a show-and-tell demonstration, sharing its lyrics, which are far removed from spoken English.

Elham (Tara Grammy), an aspiring gastroenterologist, finds spoken English frustrating but needs proficiency to pursue further education in Australia. Roya (Mary Apick) is a grandmother yearning to join her son and his family, who have emigrated to what she calls "the Canada." She hopes English will make her more welcome in their home. Omid (Joe Joseph) is more mysterious: His spoken English is at a higher level than his classmates since he lived in the U.S. before his family returned to Iran, but he wants to keep his second language fresh. He and Marjan bond because of their experiences beyond Iran, and they spend time watching videos of English-language films, especially Notting Hill and Love Actually.

Classroom sessions start with simple interrogatory exchanges ("How are you?" "What is your favorite color?") that become more complex exercises–show-and-tell presentations, competitive word associations with a passed ball, and practicing initial letter "W"s ("Wendy Wilson," "wheels"), a challenge tough for Farsi speakers–that are both humorous and enlightening. At one point, Marjan asks them to imagine being native English speakers. That's what they yearn for, but they find it almost impossible to believe they'll ever get there.

Marjan has multiple one-on-one scenes with each student. Goli sweetly inhabits her dreams of pop culture, but at first is quick to stop when she meets a roadblock. Marjan encourages her, and we see Goli's confidence grow. Roya, a generation older than the others, does not make much progress. But once she gets a smart phone, she leaves voice messages for her son in Canada until Elham tells her that he is avoiding her. She has a heartbreaking exchange with Marjan when Roya says she has a new granddaughter named Claire (which she cannot pronounce correctly) and her son wants Claire to learn only English.

Mohseni's patient, elegant Marjan is sometimes infuriating to her charges, especially the cantankerous, outspoken Elham, who we learn has failed TOEFL more than once. "I am not idiot," she says; Marjan prompts her with "an idiot," and Elham corrects herself forcefully. Marjan tells her, "English is not your enemy." But Elham is Marjan's most contentious student — and the one who shows the most promise.

The real depth of English comes through in Marjan's exchanges with Omid. She loves the English language, but her return to Iran (for unexplained reasons) seems to have caused an undertone of sadness and regret. They bond over their experience of being caught in-between, linguistically and socially, "half here, half there." Marjan's husband and daughter do not speak English; Omid's family, who spent time living in Ohio, are now in Iran and immersed in Farsi. In the show's final moments Marjan and Elham actually exchange in Farsi, something none of the students have heard the teacher speak, and this comes as a revelation and a demonstration of the barriers that might never completely dissolve.

The intimacy of the Old Globe's 250-seat, in-the-round Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre is perfect for this story's intimacy, and director Shahi's staging keeps the cast in motion to the audience on all sides. The emotions and anxieties as well as the satisfactions and sadness of the characters are palpable.

Sadra Tehrani designed the simple classroom set, with overhead fluorescent lighting and student desks that are constantly rearranged for the 95-minute show's numerous brief scenes. Amanda Zieve's lighting design further underscores the ebb and flow of feelings. Recognition should also be offered to dialect coach Ana Bayat who helped the actors with Toossi's complex language and pronunciation, shifting back and forth from the various forms of English used to tell this insightful, entertaining, and thoughtful production.

English, runs through February 25, 2024, at The Old Globe, Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, San Diego CA. For tickets and information, please visit or call 619-234-5623.