'Vietgone': Theater Review
Romantic sparks fly between two Vietnamese refugees in Qui Nguyen's outlandish comedy inspired by his parents' experiences.
Don't be surprised if you encounter a rather younger audience than usual at Manhattan Theatre Club for its new production of Vietgone. This institutional theater, not particularly known for its adventurousness, is taking a chance on this new play by Qui Nguyen, co-founder of the Obie-winning Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company. The fictionalized tale of the 1975 meeting of the playwright's parents in an Arkansas Vietnamese refugee camp bursts with profanity, rap music numbers, comic-book style projections and even kung fu fighting. And the play and MTC are both the better for it.
The playful meta-theatricality of the piece, a co-production of MTC and South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif., is indicated early on. The "playwright" (actually ensemble member Paco Tolson) delivers the pre-show announcement, which — besides the usual warnings about cellphones, hearing devices, etc. — informs us that the play is "absolutely not about" his parents.
"Seriously, if any of you peeps repeat or retweet anything you've seen tonight to my folks, you're assholes," he warns.
The central characters are Quang (Raymond Lee), a South Vietnamese helicopter pilot forced to leave his wife and children behind in Vietnam even as he was flying refugees to safety; and Tong (Jennifer Ikeda), who escaped the war with her abrasive mother (Samantha Quan) in tow.
When Quang and Tong first encounter each other in the camp, sparks fly. As well they should, because they're both sexy as hell, and Tong has no compunction about expressing her desires. Within minutes of their meeting, she rips open Quang's shirt. Admiring his sculpted torso, she says approvingly, "That'll work. Okay, let's do it."
Neither of them is looking for a commitment, with Tong, much to her mother's annoyance, reveling in her sexual freedom, and the guilt-ridden Quang wanting to rejoin his family. Since we've been told of the characters' real-life inspirations at the outset, it's no spoiler to reveal that they ultimately get together. But seeing how that happens is an awful lot of fun.
The playwright — whose aesthetic is evident from the titles of such previous works as She Kills Monsters, Alice in Slasherland and Living Dead in Denmark — and director May Adrales have collaborated to deliver a wildly fun, imaginative production. Not all of it works, and the play itself could benefit from some trimming. But individual elements are terrific, such as the Vietnamese characters speaking in flawless English while the Americans talk with an exaggerated, ungrammatical drawl. There's also a wonderfully staged montage, accompanied by Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On," that hilariously satirizes such '80s-era romantic movies as Ghost, Say Anything and Dirty Dancing.
At key emotional moments, the characters express themselves by breaking into rap (never mind that the show is set years before the form became popular), the effectiveness of which is somewhat undercut by similarities to the far superior Hamilton.
In the terrific ensemble, Lee and Ikeda display sizzling chemistry and formidable comic chops, while Jon Hoche, Tolson and Quan excel in a wide variety of supporting roles. Tim Mackabee's set design, which includes a forced-perspective depiction of a desert highway dominated by billboard signs displaying Jared Mezzocchi's colorful projections, dazzles.
While there's a distinctly cartoonish vibe to the proceedings, Vietgone turns serious at the end, in a scene between the playwright and the now elderly Quang in which the latter angrily berates his son for declaring that America had no right to be in Vietnam. Beautifully written and leavened with humor, it provides interesting food for thought, even for those whose opinion about the matter may have long been set in stone.
Venue: NY City Center Stage I, New York
Cast: Jon Hoche, Jennifer Ikeda, Raymond Lee, Samantha Quan, Paco Tolson
Playwright: Qui Nguyen
Director: May Adrales
Set designer: Tim Mackabee
Costume designer: Anthony Tran
Lighting designer: Justin Townsend
Music & sound designer: Shane Rettig
Projection designer: Jared Mezzocchi
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club, in association with South Coast Repertory