Trinity Square Ensemble

at Centre East

I tend to have a naive faith in the power of words. If I can just find the right words, I tell myself, I’ll be able to make others understand me perfectly. I know this is a delusion; I know language is a feeble, imprecise tool that, even when used skillfully, can only chip away at massive misunderstandings that separate us. But what else can we do? Words are all we have, so we must keep jabbering away, in the vain hope that somehow we’ll eventually get through to each other.

That is what The Primary English Class is all about, and that is why I found it so funny. The play is a nightmare of misunderstanding. Five students show up for a basic English class. Each one speaks a different language–Italian, French, German, Chinese, and Japanese–and no one understands a word of any other language. (The audience knows what they’re saying because two offstage translators who sound like a couple of language-instruction tapes provide the translations.) The janitor speaks only Polish, and the teacher speaks only English.

This is failure to communicate on a grand scale. To make matters worse, the teacher has never taught a language class before, so she sticks stubbornly to her lesson plan, which begins with “pleasant welcome and normal chatter,” followed by “basic salutations–good morning, good afternoon, good night, good luck, and good grief.” She believes in the “total immersion” method, which means the students may speak only English; but since they don’t know any English, the teacher and her students quickly reach an impasse. No problem–the teacher just keeps chattering away, indifferent to the fact that no one understands a word she is saying.

This setup would make an amusing Second City sketch, but the playwright, Israel Horovitz, manages to stretch the idea into a two-hour play by letting the plot linger on each character. The German, for example, can’t see without his glasses. He can’t hear very well either, and reads lips. So when the teacher snatches his glasses from his face to illustrate the word “eyeglasses,” he is helpless, and cannot explain his predicament to anyone. The Frenchman starts telling the old Chinese woman how boring his wife finds him, and promptly puts the old woman to sleep. Then the German explains that his eyesight is so poor that it is easier for him to just sit quietly with his eyes closed–which he does just as the Frenchman begins talking to him.

Such misunderstandings provide ample humor, but in addition, Horovitz depicts the teacher as a full-blown neurotic whose personality deteriorates under the stress of teaching. She starts out as an ingratiating sweetheart full of enthusiasm and charm. Then she resorts to stern discipline (she slaps the students’ hands when they refuse to speak English), and becomes paranoid when the janitor keeps banging on the locked classroom door (she believes he is a mad rapist). Eventually, she reveals her deep prejudices against foreigners of every persuasion.

Such material can remain consistently funny only with the help of some terrific comic performances, and fortunately the cast of this Trinity Square Ensemble production comes reasonably close to that goal. Jensen Wheeler is particularly effective at exposing the profoundly disturbed personality of the teacher, Debbie Wastaba. (Her name is a shortened form of “wastebasket”–all the characters have surnames that mean “garbage can” in their native language.) The rest of the cast members also develop distinct personalities for their characters–Charley Bethel as the excitable, amorous Italian; Emile Levisetti as the anxious Frenchman; Circus Szalewski as the stuffy, formal German; Lee Chen as the befuddled old Chinese woman; Caroline Luat as the perky, eager-to-please Japanese woman; and Titus Trevor as the stolid Polish janitor.

The Primary English Class is similar to another Horovitz play called Line, still being done by the Inn Town Players. Also a thin comic sketch rooted in absurdity, Line shows the hostility, deception, and cruelty that erupt in a group of people standing in line for tickets. Line suggests that people are so selfish and mean that amiable relations are impossible. The Primary English Class exaggerates the difficulty of communication. Taken together, they make Horovitz look like a misanthropic curmudgeon who doesn’t have much use for human nature except, mercifully, as an abundant source of comic material.