Four Iranian students learn a lot more than a new language in Sanaz Toossi’s “English,” an engaging, enlightening dramedy in its West Coast premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

Much of the action takes place over a series of lively advanced English as a Foreign Language class sessions taught by Marjan (the sympathetic Sahar Bibiyan, of TV’s “Mr. Robot”), an Iranian who lived in Manchester, England, where she was called Mary, for nine years.

She’s a fun instructor. In one fast-paced exercise, the students practice vocabulary by tossing a ball as they shout out English words from a category she suggests. It’s a riot.

But she’s also tough, handing out demerits, tallying up points on a white board when students break down and resort to Farsi in the English-only class.

But there’s no actual Farsi in the show. Director Mina Morita navigates the uniformly superb cast through Toossi’s interesting device: When the characters speak Farsi, it’s presented as unhesitating, colloquial English. When they’re practicing the foreign language, their English is halting, sometimes heavily accented.

Recognizing her handicap, Elham, the feistiest student—whose acceptance to medical school overseas is dependent on her passing the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), which she already has failed five times—calls her own accent a “war crime.” The dynamic Mehry Eslaminia plays the show’s most fleshed out role with gusto.

She’s a contrast to Omid (the appealing Amir Malaklou), whose accent is negligible. He strikes up an out-of-class connection with Marjan, visiting her during office hours, watching romantic comedies on video and sipping Coke from a can.

L-R, Sahar Bibiyan and Amir Malaklou appear in the West Coast premiere of Sanaz Toossi’s “English” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. (Alessandra Mello/Courtesy Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

Gobi (the adorable Christine Mirzayan) is the youngest, zippiest, most optimistic student in the class, while Roya (the empathetic Sarah Nina Hayon), whose son lives in Canada, is learning the language at his insistence, to communicate with her granddaughter.

L-R, Mehry Eslaminia and Christine Mirzayan portray students who undergo changes as they learn a new language in “English” at Berkeley Rep.(Alessandra Mello/Courtesy Berkeley Repertory Theatre)
Sarah Nina Hayon plays Roya in “English.” (Alessandra Mello/Courtesy Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

In 105 minutes (with no intermission), the characters’ histories, anxieties and motivations are fascinatingly revealed—as they get to know themselves, and each other, over the six-week course—to mostly satisfying conclusion, with a real surprise, too.

Happily, the show (which has won Lucille Lortel and Obie awards, recognizing Off-Broadway productions), is more personal than political. Toossi doesn’t harp on imperialism associated with English, and Elham, only briefly, fantasizes that the Persian Empire didn’t die, and that the world’s dominant language became Farsi.

“English” appeals because its characters are delightfully funny, flawed and familiar. It’s a pleasure spending not quite two hours in their company, in both class and after hours.  

Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s “English” runs through May 7 in Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $40-$103 at (510) 647-2949 or