“This is not a story about war; it’s a story about falling in love,” the playwright tells us at the outset of “Vietgone,” a play by Qui Nguyen that manages to be both as puckish as a comic book and as poignant as a family tragedy. The “playwright” (who’s not really the playwright, but an actor portraying him) also says it’s not about his parents. (“If any of you peeps repeat or Retweet anything to my folks tonight, you’re assholes.”) Actually, the play is about his parents falling in love, and it’s also about war.
Quan and Tong meet in a refugee camp in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas in 1975, after the fall of Saigon. He wakes her up from a nightmare about the fate of her loved ones back in Vietnam.
But the scene of her bad dream, which doesn’t occur until the end of Act I, is one of the few directly dark ones in “Vietgone.” Nguyen and director May Adrales find such richly inventive and entertaining ways to tell the story of these two refugees that the play feels wiped clean of the clichés of both the “immigrant experience” and “the hell of war.”
The Vietnamese characters speak in fluent, colloquial English, often a form of hip California surfer dude-speak (lots of “bro” and “yo”), while the Americans mostly speak like barely coherent yahoos. The most outlandish example: “Yee-haw! Get’er done! Cheeseburger, waffle fries, cholesterol!” The reversal here both makes a terrific point (Think of all those illiterate-sounding foreigners in Hollywood movies), and it’s hilarious.
Tong and Quang also perform at least a half dozen full-on raps between them, which are jarring at first. One may ask why a Vietnamese refugee is rapping in 1975, but is that any more anachronistic than Hamilton rapping in 1776?
Nguyen, who is a fight director as well as co-founder of the pop-besotted, self-described “geek theater” company Vampire Cowboys, manages to work in fisticuffs with a redneck biker and martial art maneuvers with masked ninjas. The set design by Tim Mackabee is a parody of the American road movie. Quang and his sidekick Nhan ride a rusted old motorcycle on a road dotted with telephone poles, gorgeous skies (courtesy of lighting designer Justin Townsend) and two imposing billboards, which serve as screens for Jared Mezzocchis’s alternately informative and eye-catching projections. These are a kind of kinetic stage adaptation of the graphic novel aesthetic.
For all the pop culture silliness, the playfulness with language, and the clever stagecraft, “Vietgone” paints complex and credible portraits of the two main characters.
It is hard to picture better casting than Raymond Lee as Quang and Jennifer Ikeda as Tong, who are never less than appealing, even as they believably embody their characters’ scarred and occasionally off-putting personas. Quang, a former pilot in the South Vietnamese Army who was forced to leave his wife and two young children back home, is determined to return to Vietnam – that’s what he’s doing on that motorcycle; he has a harebrained plan to drive to California, take a flight to Guam, and then sneak back into his mother country. Tong is determined to stay in America, and stay single, resisting her mother’s pressure to get married. She strives to be “the sheer opposite of every Vietnamese woman on the planet.”
She has a cynical attitude towards love. When she seduces Quang, who refers to their “making love,” she replies:
“There was no “love” between these sheets. There was some stress, a bit of rage, and a shitload of frustration, but love had nothing to do with what we just did. “
This attitude, we eventually learn, is rooted in her experiences back home. She couldn’t convince her brother to escape with her because he didn’t want to leave his girlfriend.
The three other cast members in “Vietgone” – John Hoche, Samantha Quan and Paco Tolson — each play about a half dozen characters, and they are impressive quick-change artists (helped by the hard-working costume designer Anthony Tran.) Hoche is effective as sidekick Nhan and moving as Tong’s brother Khue. Paco Tolson is winning as the playwright, and adorable as a clueless American soldier at the camp trying to woo Tong.
Tolson’s other characters are American stereotypes. One is a “Hippie Dude,” whom Quang and Nhan meet on the road, and with whom they smoke dope. The hippie while stoned apologizes to Quang “for what we did to your country,” and tells him “I lost a brother over there.” This enrages Quang, who launches into a rap with the refrain:
“Yo, you lost a brotha
I lost my family
You lost a brotha
I lost my whole country.”
The stoned hippie dude, not even given a name, is such a caricature that this struck me as unfairly stacking the deck against his view of the Vietnam War. (Is the death of a brother really so insultingly inconsequential?)
At first, it also seems that Samantha Quan is called on to portray Tong’s mother Huong largely as a caricature of an overbearing parent.
But Huong gains greater depth as “Vietgone” progresses. And then in the last scene of the play, the playwright interviews his now elderly father Quang (presumably in order to write this play), and the Vietnam War comes up again. “America should never have gotten involved,” the playwright says, and his father explodes – just as he exploded with the hippie dude. What Quang says about the Vietnam War is eloquent and deeply touching — and a perspective that I have never before seen on a New York stage. “Vietgone,“ I realized, is told from Quang’s perspective, not the playwright’s. (It is Quang, not the playwright, who is dismissive of the hippie dude.) it is a perspective that forced me to examine my own. And isn’t that what theater is supposed to do?
“Vietgone” is comic and compassionate; overlong (by at least 15 minutes) — and overdue.
Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center
Written by Qui Nguyen
Directed by May Adrales
Scenic design by Tim Mackabee, costume design by Anthony Tran, lighting design by Justin Townsend, sound design and original music by Shane Rettig, projection design by Jared Mezzocchi.
Cast: John Hoche, Jennifer Ikeda, Raymond Lee, Samantha Quan, Paco Tolson
Running time: two and a half hours, including a 15 minute intermission
Vietgone is scheduled to run through November 27, 2016
Update: Extended through December 4, 2016.