Sanaz Toossi, California-born daughter of immigrants from Iran, has racked up awards for her two New York debut plays this season, “English” and “Wish You Were Here.”* Both are set in Iran, both are comedies about loss. Each focuses on intimate moments between the characters (portrayed in each by a splendid cast of five), that only subtly alludes to the complicated world around them. Together they offer characters we haven’t gotten to see with any frequency on a New York stage, and they do so freshly, yet in a way that makes New York theatergoers feel somehow as if we know them already.
Neither play is without flaws. Both herald the arrival of an original talent.
I saw “English” right before the end of its run in March at the Atlantic Theater Company, so didn’t write a review then, but its continuing attention months after it has closed has convinced me to weigh in now, lightly.
“Wish You Were Here” is running at Playwrights Horizons through June 5.
In the first scene of “Wish You Were Here,” five female friends, all around twenty years old, are helping one of them, Salme (Roxanne Hope Radja) prepare for her wedding. They fuss over her dress and her makeup; taunt and touch and joke around with one another in the playful way of young women not yet completely willing to give up their childhood. They also talk bluntly about sex and their bodies, and tease/give advice to Salme about her forthcoming wedding night.
At one point, Salme calls over Shideh (Artemis Pebdani), gives her a big hug, asks her whether she’s applying for medical school (she is) and exclaims “I wish you were my doctor.”
Shideh answers: “I’m trying to fast-track my diploma. In case.”
It’s the only reference in the first scene to what’s happening outside the door.
It is 1978 and the young women live in Karaj, twelve miles west of Tehran in Iran, a country that is in the midst of upheaval and on the cusp of revolution.
This kind of oblique reference is largely the approach in the nine scenes to follow, which go year by year to 1991. The women do not talk about politics or even much about current events. “Wish You Were Here” is most obviously about female friendship, and how it changes – must change? – with age. It’s a story of the strength and joy of such friendship, and of its almost inevitable decline, told through the credible performances of five exquisite actresses. Yet both playwright Sanaz Toossi and director Gaye Taylor Upchurch very subtly but firmly root the story in the particular circumstances of Iran’s recent history, so that the losses seem beyond just personal.
This is illustrated in the second scene. The friends have gathered again for another wedding, that of Zari (Nikki Massoud) in 1979, the year that the government of the Shah was replaced by the fundamentalist Islamic regime of Ayatollah Khomeini. There are only slightly more explicit comments: “This will all blow over in a year,” says Nazanin (Marjan Neshat.) But then we realize that Nazanin’s best friend, Rana (Nazanin Nour), whom we saw in the first scene, is not present in the second. Nobody knows where she is; her parents are gone too. “A family of Jews going missing is usually not a good sign,” Shideh says. There is no explication of the toll that the changeover to an Islamic nation has taken on its Jewish citizens; it’s not necessary.
The following scene takes place in 1980, another one of the friends has disappeared, and the three who remain are taking shelter during the Iran-Iraq War. In 1981, there are only two friends left and an oblique mention of the hostages at the American embassy. In 1982, four are back (still no Rana) for Nazanin’s decidedly less spirited wedding. Zari tries to find music on the radio. Shideh says: “Stop looking, it’s illegal.”
Such direct reflections of the changing political environment, as I said, are brief, not where the playwright directs our attention. But the politics, though kept in the background, is arguably pervasive. It’s the explanation for many of the choices, and one tragedy, that result in the friends drifting emotionally and physically apart over the course of the play, not just away from each other, but away from their home, into other lands and other identities. Sarah Laux’s costumes trace this unspoken journey, from the expansive and expensive white wedding dress and stylish red silk pajamas in the early scenes to the black hijab that one of the characters keeps at her side, not wearing it at the moment because she’s safely inside.
Each actress in the play offers efficiently etched portraits: Radja’s Salme the peacemaker; Pebdani’s Shideh the wisecracker; Rana the savvy hipster; Massoud’s Zari the most naïve and silly who gains the most in wisdom; and Neshat’s Nazanin, a sharp-tongued cynic, who winds up with the most regrets. But it’s one of the side effects of the rapidly changing scenes and the focus on the group dynamics that I didn’t feel I got to know the characters as well as I would have liked to. Similarly, Arnulfo Maldonado’s set changed little from scene to scene, no matter whose home the women were supposed to be during any scene. Both might have been deliberate choices. It’s as if the play is saying: whenever these women congregate, they’re the same woman, and wherever they are, it’s all one home.
In the last scene of “Wish You Were Here,” there is only one friend left in the room. “Being your best friend was my whole personality. I miss being defined by who you were. In the long shadow of your existence, I found a home.”
Wish You Were Here
Playwrights Horizons through June 5
Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission
Written by Sanaz Toossi
Directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch,
Scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado, costume design by Sarah Laux, lighting design by Reza Behjat, sound design by Sinan Refik Zafar & Brian Hickey, production stage manager Vanessa Coakley
Cast: Nikki Massoud (Zari), Marjan Neshat (Nazanin), Nazanin Nour (Rana), Artemis Pebdani (Shideh), Roxanna Hope Radja (Salme).
“English,” an amusing, sharply observed if slower paced comedy, takes place in Karaj too, in 2008, in a classroom, where the teacher Marjan (Marjan Neshat, who also portrays Nazanin in “Wish You Were Here”), is teaching four adult students English to prepare them for the TOEFL exam (which stands for “Test of English as a Foreign Language.”)
The challenge for the play was how to make intelligible for an American audience the struggle of Farsi-speakers to learn English.
Toossi came up with a solution that’s similar to one that Qui Nguyen pioneered in “Vietgone” in 2016. In that play, all the actors are actually speaking English, but the characters are understood to be speaking Vietnamese. The Vietnamese characters’ speech is fluent and colloquial, while the Americans speak like barely coherent yahoos – a reversal of the broken English that Hollywood assigned to non-white characters for generations.
In “English,” when the characters are said to be speaking Farsi, the actors are speaking in fluent, colloquial English. When they are attempting to speak in English, it’s halting and heavily accented.
Over 23 short scenes, we sit through six weeks of English lessons, much of which is amusing.
“Every day in here I feel like idiot,” Elham (Tala Ashe) says in frustration, in her halting English. “And I want everyone to know I am not idiot.”
“I am not an idiot,” Marjan corrects her grammar.
Each of the characters has a different reason for taking this class – for learning English – and (as in “Wish You Were Here,” but not as pronounced), the characters drop out one by one.
Elham wants to go to medical school in Australia. She is very hard on herself: “Yes, my accent is a war crime.” Her frustration is understandable: She’s failed TOEFL five times.
Goli (Ava Lalezarzad), very young and sweet, likes the way English makes her feel: “You know like, no one really listens to me in Farsi but I don’t know when I speak English it’s like there are no question marks at the end of my sentences and I’m three or four inches taller?”
Elham doesn’t buy it: “You’re 18, Goli. That’s how 18 feels.”
Roya (Pooya Mohseni) has an adult son in Canada, and she says she has legal residence there, but she tells her classmates that her son wants her first to learn English, so that she can speak only English to her granddaughter. It becomes evident as the play unfolds that her son Nader (who now calls himself Nate) may only want her to visit his family – and perhaps not even that. Roya disappears about halfway through the play. Although it’s never said explicitly, she’s presumably dropped out of the course because she no longer has an incentive to learn English.
Before she leaves, though, she explodes, insisting that the class listen to a song in Farsi: “We should remember that we come from this. And our voluntary migration from this is something we should be grieving.” – a line that, like some in “Wish You Were Here,” is dropped in lightly but says volumes.
Omid (Hadi Tabbal) is in class, he says, to prepare for an interview at the American consulate for a green card. He speaks English so much better than anybody else (including the teacher) that it becomes a great source of humor in the play. During the occasional contests the teacher creates to challenge her students to come up with English vocabulary on a specific subject, Omid’s abstruse choices hilariously baffle and irritate his classmates: Things you find in a kitchen (“spatula”), things you find in a classroom (“white-out”), items of clothing (“windbreaker.”)
But it turns out that Omid has been lying. (I feel I can spoil this now because the production has closed.) He already has an American passport; he was born in the United States, and lived there until he was 13, until his immigrant parents decided to return to Iran.
Marjan sees this as a betrayal, and there is a suggestion that she feels betrayed as well by the announcement that Omid has become engaged to be married; we’ve felt a growing connection between Omid and Marjan; they’ve watched English-language movies (Julia Roberts romantic comedies!) by themselves during “office hours.”
Omid is an intriguing character, animated by an actor whose work I’ve admired since first seeing him perform at (the now extinct) Humana Festival a decade ago. But how does this character make sense? Why was he lying? If he’s a native speaker with an American passport, why was he taking this class? Was it just to flirt with the teacher? Was he lonely? Perhaps there are reasons intrinsic to the character, rather than some sloppy contrivance on the part of the playwright.
As with “Wish You Were Here,” much that is left unsaid, or barely said, in “English,” somehow manages to offer us a meditation on the meaning of home and identity. Marjan Neshat is especially strong in suggesting the subterranean sadness beneath her patient, encouraging teacherly mien. Having lived for years in England, she seems to be unsure where she now belongs.
I guess there’s not much point in talking about the design details of closed production – I’m sure there will be other productions of this play – but it might be worth pointing out how Marsha Ginsberg’s set rotates, in order to offer the audience different perspectives. And that’s what Sanaz Toossi’s writing does too.
Atlantic Theater through March 20, 2022
Written by Sanaz Toossi
Directed by Knud Adams
Scenic design by Marsha Ginsberg, costume design by Enver Chakartash, lighting design by Reza Behjat, sound design by Sinan Refik Zafar, and casting by Stephen Kopel
Cast: Tala Ashe as Elham, Ava Lalezarzadeh as Goli, Pooya Mohseni as Roya, Marjan Neshat as Marjan the teacher, Hadi Tabbal as Omid.
- Toossi’s awards so far: the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play, The Outer Critics Circle’s John Gassner Award for new American play; a Drama Desk Award nomination for Outstanding Play, along with four other nominations (actress, director, scenic design, lighting design), an Off Broadway Alliance Award nomination for best new play; a special citation from the New York Drama Critics Circle to Toossi for both plays