Review: Learning English, when your accent is a “war crime”


Not that we are told; we just see it happening, thanks to Toossi’s clever dramatization of the process. (When the characters speak English, they do so hesitantly and with an accent; when they speak Farsi, which we hear in English, it’s fast and accentless.) Even Elham, his W no longer sounds like V, and his tempo improved from largo to allegretto, is finally able to pose a challenge to Omid’s fluidity.

The mystery of this fluidity (why does he know ‘windbreaker’?) is one of the most obvious tension devices in a room which, despite its pleasures – but also at the basis of them – has a structure somewhat schematic. Like a lifeboat movie, it features the immediate and broad differentiation of characters, their shifting alliances in the face of an impending threat, and an eventual resolution involving the telling of lies and someone thrown overboard.

Its themes aren’t entirely new either; the drama of layering one language onto another is at the heart of works as varied as Brian Friel’s “Translations” (in which a 19th century cartographer is tasked with rendering Irish place names into English) and the novel Leo Rosten’s hyper asterisk “The Upbringing of H*Y*M*A*NK*A*P*L*A*N,” set among immigrants in an evening English class and turned into a musical in 1968.

But the delicacy of Toossi’s development easily offsets both issues, especially the lifeboat melodrama hysteria; in a recent New York Times interview, she told my colleague Alexis Soloski that “writing a play about trauma makes me want to gasp.”

Thus, when faced with characters who could easily be exoticized in their chadors, Toossi instead chose to focus on their familiarity; like most of us, they face less geopolitical disaster and more an atmosphere of mild, yet daily unease. As such, the ideas here are profound but never earth-shattering, such as when Roya perceives the crucial distinction between the verbs “visit” and “live” in one of her son’s messages. If the happiness of the world does not depend on it, that of a grandmother depends on it.

Director Knud Adams gently underlines the calm, almost classical rhythms of Toossi’s writing. Chopinesque piano solos play between scenes. As the play considers the question of language from multiple angles, the cube-shaped decor, by Marsha Ginsberg, slowly rotates, offering alternate views of the building’s street, the interior of the classroom, and a portico. of entry. The cast is uniformly excellent, in a suitably understated yet fully lived-in way.

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