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Theatre in Review: Vietgone (Manhattan Theatre Club/City Center Stage I)

Paco Tolson, Jennifer Ikeda. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Near the end of Vietgone, the playwright Qui Nguyen -- well, really, the actor Paco Tolson, playing him -- finds himself frustrated in his attempts at getting his father to tell his life story. The older man, fed up with so many questions, says, in his choppy English, "Stick to writing funny plays, son; this stuff too sad for old man like me to recount just to help you write just another war story."

Nguyen's father can rest easy; his son has penned anything but that. Vietgone is set against the background of the Vietnam War, but it is a love story -- one that is often rude, raucous, and profane. With a cast of characters who cope with tragedy in a hard-boiled, often wisecracking, fashion and a storytelling method filtered through a comic-book/graphic-novel sensibility, Vietgone is a certified original -- sometimes to a fault. In its admirable insistence on overturning the usual pieties and insisting that the Vietnamese refugees who populate the play are not helpless victims in a racist America, the play can sometimes be sophomoric, even grating. Then again, when the author's voice is this fresh and funny, how can one complain too much?

After an opening that explains how the Vietnamese characters will speak in modified hip-hop slang (this despite the play's 1975 time frame) and the Americans will express themselves in a more-or-less incoherent patois consisting mostly of nouns strung together ("Cheeseburger, waffle fries, cholesterol!), Vietgone is literally off and running with the hero, Quang, racing through the American Southwest on a motorcycle with his friend Nhan. Quang is a man with a mission; Vietgone, which is already halfway to being a musical, has him aggressively rapping, "Of a Vietnam that's free/From those evil VC/You can't stop me/I'm like a pissed off Bruce Lee.") He is desperate to catch an Army flight to Guam and, from there, a flight to Vietnam; he has recently been evacuated from Saigon and is now hell-bent on returning home to his wife and children.

The action then flashes back, explaining how Quang, a helicopter pilot in the South Vietnam air force, is ordered to ferry out a full load of escapees. Once he lands on a US aircraft carrier, he is forbidden to return. Meanwhile, Tong, who works at the US embassy in Saigon, is busy fending off the attentions of Giai, her would-be fiancé. Given two tickets to the US, she tries to take her brother, Khue, but he refuses to leave without his girlfriend, so she flees with Huong, her querulous, highly traditional mother.

Quang and Tong both end up at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, with other Vietnamese, where they are made to contend with prison-like conditions, language issues, and meals that consist of nothing but meat and fried foods. Despite Quang's determination to recover his family and Tong's total ban on romance, they fall into an affair that proves totally disruptive to their plans. Tong, despite her mother's disapproval, is set on starting a new life in the US, and isn't entirely resistant, in a cold-blooded way, to the overtures of Bobby, a soldier with more goodwill than brains. Why should great sex with Quang get in the way of all that?

Despite taking place in a world of violence and displacement, Vietgone unfolds in a fashion close to screwball comedy. Tong, who is nothing if not self-aware, turns down a suitor, saying, "I'm sorry I don't have a reason for saying 'no' other than it just being no. Maybe I'm just a bitch. There's mounting evidence that indeed may be the case." Nhan says he doesn't want to die without having the experience of sex with a woman. Quang, fed up with such delusions, reminds him, "The pimply chick from Nha Trang? The tall girl with the black teeth from Bao Loc?" "Neither of them were particularly good lays," Nhan replies. Huong, catching her daughter making eyes at Bobby, snaps, "Are you actually coming on to an American soldier? How pedestrian is that?" Indeed, Huong, who has no illusions about her daughter, advises Bobby, "Can I be honest with you, dummy? She's not right for you. You're a sweet boy. But that's the thing, you're sweet. She's sour. It doesn't match well. Do you understand?"

Vietgone sometimes artfully pivots from these magpie moments to more serious matters, including a nightmare in which Tong has a conversation with her brother, only to discover that he is a bleeding corpse. When a blissed-out hippie Quang meets on the road tries to apologize for the US invasion of Vietnam, he can't contain his impatience: "You're an idiot. I mean -- no offense -- maybe you're not, maybe it's just the weed talking, but right now you sound dumb as a motherf---er. You have no idea what you're talking about." In one of the most gripping passages, Nhan savagely treats Quang to a dose of reality: "We died the moment the VC crossed Newport Bridge into Saigon and you flew us the f--- outta there to save us. And that's what you did, you saved a lot of lives that day, but there was one life that got lost and that was yours."

At other times, the dialogue and humor are crass and juvenile. Asked about a former suitor, Tong cracks, "It's not Bic. Bic's a dick." Huong is forced to say "I don't yell!" - and, of course, she's yelling. The comic possibilities of American characters shouting "Cheeseburger! Chee-tos!" are quickly exhausted. Some of the hip-hop numbers feature nimble, mordant lyrics, but when Tong is forced to recite "I don't give a shit" over and over, you know that Lin-Manuel Miranda is resting easy.

Still, under May Adrales' fast-paced, often buoyant direction, the cast of five proves to be excellent company. Raymond Lee makes a fine road warrior as Quang, his determination to save his wife and children scrambled by the woman standing in front of him. Jennifer Ikeda doesn't shy away from Tong's more abrasive qualities, an honest approach that pays off when she explains how she has walled herself off from the pain of losing her brother. Despite everything, you begin to root for them to stay together. In addition, Jon Hoche provides sharply etched characterizations as Nhan and Khue; Samantha Quan works the role of Huong for every bit of crabby old lady humor; and Tolson is affable and amusing as both the playwright and Bobby. All three play so many additional roles that, come the curtain call, you find it hard to believe you haven't been watching a cast of dozens.

Adrales has also gotten some extremely inventive work from her designers. Tim Mackabee's set places the action on a desert highway, and an empty billboard frame and unpainted wood wall act as surfaces for Jared Mezzocchi's comic-book-style projections. Anthony Tran's costumes range from military uniforms to flower-power outfits. Justin Townsend's lighting, which reconfigures the space fluently, also includes some lovely desert sunsets. Shane Rettig's sound design blends music with a torrent of effects, including explosions, alarms, helicopter rotors, and many more.

By the time we end up with Quang, as an old man, being interviewed by his son, the playwright, Vietgone has become surprisingly moving, its many excesses notwithstanding. Nguyen has given us a distinctive American story, filled with immigrant characters who are nobody's fools. His parents -- assuming they aren't mortified to see their lives onstage -- should be very, very proud. -- David Barbour

(10 November 2016)

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