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When the sinisterly charming emcee played by Francis Jue clicks through black and white slides of the Khmer Rouge period near the start of Cambodian Rock Band, he rolls his eyes at the automatic associations most people have with the Southeast Asian country. “Bor-ring,” he groans. “Tragique,” he adds, with an archly campy gestural flourish and just a hint of a conspiratorial wink. Sardonic humor isn’t something you expect from a play addressing a genocide that claimed two million lives, but it’s part of what has made Lauren Yee’s genre-defiant blend of family reckoning, haunting historical investigation and psychedelic surf rock concert such a popular hit across the country.
One of the top 10 most produced new American stage works this season, the play is grounded in specific political and cultural trauma but explores a reality true for countless refugees that have escaped blood-stained birthplaces and settled in new homes, keeping silent about the psychological scars of the past. That silence can create gulfs between immigrant parents and the children they seek to insulate from the horrors of their experience, forming the kind of identity conflicts that give Cambodian Rock Band its beating heart.
Yee’s play is structurally imperfect. Its setup is plodding, its big dramatic reveal telegraphed too early, and despite the buildup given to a cathartic unburdening of its central character, the writer struggles to shape that disclosure into an emotionally satisfying conclusion. But she gets considerable help solving the problem from the kick-ass live band onstage, who triumphantly reclaim the story as they rise from the ashes of a brutal regime in which music, the arts and the basic personal freedoms so joyously embodied in Western-style rock ‘n’ roll were among the systematically eradicated casualties.
Having all but one of the six-member cast double as musicians, performing a mix of hits by Los Angeles band Dengue Fever with Cambodian oldies, in English and Khmer, is a clever touch that ups the entertainment factor and brings cohesion to the play’s different facets.
Directed by Chay Yew with an assured hand at maintaining focus through Yee’s time jumps and tricky tonal shifts, the production opens with the band The Cyclos powering through two propulsive numbers. Well, one and a half really, before Jue’s character cuts them off mid-song with mock politeness as he clarifies that this is his story even if he may not appear for quite some time. Still, he lurks about the stage, keeping a curious eye on the action and occasionally interjecting helpful clues to link past and present. He subtly signals his identity even before it’s spelled out, and then steps into the narrative with chilling authority in the second act.
Cambodian American Neary (Courtney Reed) has been in Phnom Penh for two years at the start of the play in 2008, investigating war criminals for an NGO called the International Center for Transitional Justice, when her father Chum (Joe Ngo) arrives without warning. He’s evasive about the reasons for his sudden visit, showing dismissive regard for her work and even less for the Thai Canadian colleague, Ted (Moses Villarama), whose romantic involvement with her Neary awkwardly tries to hide. Chum is more interested in the fish spa at the nearby Sheraton.
Yee swiftly sketches in a familiar dynamic that raises laughs of recognition particularly from Asian Americans in the audience when 26-year-old Neary patiently explains her nervousness around her father to Ted: “I am the only child of an only child. I am disappointment made flesh.”
The version Neary knows of her father’s family history and his experiences during the Pol Pot years is far from accurate, and the playwright methodically sets about assembling the full picture. Chum claims to have returned to Cambodia to retrieve Neary and steer her back to law school at Cornell. But his true motives are connected to her work to convict the first Khmer Rouge official for crimes against humanity. That man is Duch, the real-life former math teacher who ran the notorious S-21 Prison, where an estimated 20,000 people were tortured and executed. The recent discovery of a photograph of an eighth survivor (there were previously believed to be only seven) represents a potentially explosive break in the case.
There’s a clunky quality to the narrative device of having Neary go AWOL and then Chum coax her out of hiding by parceling out the real truth about his past in cellphone messages. He calls it her favorite game: “Let’s Make a Deal.” But once the mechanism is set in motion, the play navigates the shifting time frame and assembles its puzzle pieces with confidence.
That includes a jump back to 1975, as The Cyclos are recording tracks for their first and last album on tape, just before the withdrawal of American troops and the Khmer Rouge’s march on the capital; and then to 1978, with viscerally harrowing scenes inside an interrogation cell at S-21.
Yee deftly parallels the American perspective of Neary, who believes tenaciously in the justice process, with the more jaded view of her father. Chum says that Pol Pot might be dead and the Khmer Rouge removed from power, but their thumbprint is still everywhere in the country, notably in the failure to convict even one regime official in 30 years. The play provides thoughtful commentary on the cancerous moral compromises people make to survive violent oppression, whether that applies to the hapless Chum or the more unpardonable Duch, the point being that few escape such situations without blood on their hands.
Director Yew staged the play’s 2018 premiere at South Coast Rep, which commissioned the work, and has mounted a number of productions since. That long association is evident in his tight control over its unwieldy dramaturgy and his sensitivity toward even the most flawed characters. The production’s design elements are first-rate, with Takeshi Kata’s set switching from 2008 Phnom Penh, with its jumble of commercial signage, to S-21, its grimy walls speaking of untold atrocities, cloaked in unsettling gloom by David Weiner’s lighting. The highlight of Linda Cho’s costumes is the fabulous ’70s chic worn by The Cyclos, who perform on a moving platform.
The solid ensemble is a seamless mix of actors from previous productions with newcomers, all of them benefiting from the compassion, humanity and playfulness with which Yee invests even her most challenging characters.
On the extreme end of the spectrum is Duch, played by — spoiler alert! — Jue with ingratiating self-justification and flamboyant showmanship offset by conflicting shades of ice-cold pragmatism and a Buddhist spirit of atonement that may or may not be sincere. Watching him on cowbell percussion, boogying along to a Cyclos number, is a blast. Ngo originated the role of Chum, and while the playwright is a touch too transparent in laying the foundations for his confession, the actor nails the character’s corny humor while slowly uncovering the remorse eating away at him.
Ted is a thankless part, but Villarama plays Cyclos bassist Leng with a relaxed charisma (plus a killer pair of striped hipster pants) that darkens with Act II revelations. Reed (the original Princess Jasmine in Disney’s Aladdin on Broadway) can’t do much with the strictly functional role of Neary; she’s more effective bringing cool rock-goddess sensuality to Cyclos vocalist Sothea, her hands snaking around her torso like a Southeast Asian Grace Slick as she dazzles on songs alternately hard-pounding and tender.
The play’s chief weakness is that the whole reason for Chum’s unannounced arrival in Cambodia is his fear that Neary will never look at him the same way once she knows his truth, and Yee makes that discovery anticlimactic. But when the action swerves with time-tripping magic into a performance that suggests the enduring power of music — and by extension, the human spirit — to outlast even the most horrific experience, it’s easy to be swept along by the foot-stomping beat.
Venue: Pershing Square Signature Center, New York
Cast: Francis Jue, Abraham Kim, Jane Lui, Joe Ngo, Courtney Reed, Moses Villarama
Director: Chay Yew
Playwright: Lauren Yee
Songs: Dengue Fever
Set designer: Takeshi Kata
Costume designer: Linda Cho
Lighting designer: David Weiner
Sound designer: Mikhail Fiksel
Projection designer: Luke Norby
Presented by Signature Theatre
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