by Donna Herman
Look! Up on the Manhattan Theatre Club stage! It’s a love story! No, it’s a comedy! No, it’s a rap musical! No, It’s a live graphic novel! NO! It’s the New York premiere of “Vietgone” by playwright Qui Nguyen. Part playful, part dead serious, Qui Nguyen, born in America to two Vietnamese refugee parents, takes dead aim at both Baby Boomers and Millennials alike in his innovative new work and hits both targets.
“Vietgone,” unsurprisingly, takes us back to the Vietnam War with the help of an amazingly versatile and agile cast. Three out of five of them play 16 different roles, including the autobiographical character of ‘The Playwright,’ (Paco Tolson) who denies that any of what we’re about to see is real. While introducing the play, The Playwright assures us the story is about a “completely made up man” and “a completely not-real woman” who are both 30 years old, born in Vietnam and although survivors of a conflict that has been going on for their whole lives, it’s not a story about war. It’s a love story. And any resemblance to real people alive or dead is completely coincidental. “That especially goes for any person or persons who could be related to the playwright. Specifically his parents. Who this play is absolutely not about. Seriously, if any of you peeps repeat or retweet anything you’ve seen to my folks tonight, you’re assholes.”
I’m not going to spoil the fun for you, but suffice it to say that when he introduces the ‘not parents’ Quang (Raymond Lee) and Tong (Jennifer Ikeda), it becomes even more clear that Nguyen, in both real and dramatic form, is going to turn all your expectations upside down. Whether you lived through the “conflict,” read the Cliff Notes in school, or heard the stories from your parents (wherever they were born), Nguyen has a fresh perspective for you to consider. In “Vietgone” he’s asking us to see America from the Vietnamese point of view.
The play takes place in 1975, around the fall of Saigon. Quang, a married South Vietnamese helicopter pilot and his Air Force buddy Nhan (Jon Hoche), and Tong, a single South Vietnamese woman who worked in Saigon for the American Embassy and her mother, Huong (Samantha Quan), all end up in a relocation camp together in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. Due to the exigencies of war, Quang couldn’t get to his family, and Tong could only take one person and chose to take her mother, not her disappointing boyfriend.
Upon landing at the relocation camp the refugees all struggle to adjust to their altered circumstances. Tong, angry and rebelling against the restricted roles allowed women in traditional Vietnam, is eager to embrace a new life in America. Huong, her mother, is strictly old guard and finds everything about the camp ugly and repulsive, all Americans stupid, and her daughter’s behavior in constant need of correction. She and Tong are alone, and she sees Vietnam and her old life through rose colored glasses, and longs to return. Quang is comfortable in America. He spent a year and a half here training to be a pilot many years ago and speaks English easily. But he is angry, frustrated and guilty about his family and determined to return to Vietnam for them. Nhan, his best friend, is just happy to be in the land of free love, rock ‘n roll, and readily available drugs. Did I mention free love? He’s wants to stay and par-tay, but he’s loyal to the end. Where Quang goes, so does he.
Nguyen has structured the piece very cleverly, and has given every audience demographic a sympathetic way into the story, ably assisted by his creative team. The pre-show music is all iconic Woodstock-era classics. The set has references to familiar pop art posters, and some of the action is accompanied by cartoon versions of what’s happening on stage beamed across a giant screen at the top of the set. There are pop-culture references familiar to every age group from those of us who grew up when TV was young, to those of us who now stream their entertainment on their phones. I do, however, wish a little more of the music sung by the cast had been conceived in a genre other than rap. It tends to make everything sound angry and well, the same.
Even though we know the end of the story from the beginning, the play is an essentially eyewitness account of a war-torn, divisive period of our history, is told from the point of view of a group of people – refugees – whose plight is a hot-button topic today, there are moral gray areas, the lead characters display some unsympathetic behavior, and the play challenges the political views we’ve clung to for decades, the audience is relaxed and happy. We’re in good hands, this guy is not going to burn us or berate us or make us miserable. He might make us think, but the thought is delivered or followed with a laugh, and that feeling of connection. This is something I know about. These are human beings just like me. It’s a gift.
“Vietgone” by Qui Nguyen, directed by May Adrales, original music by Shane Rettig
WITH: Jon Hoche (Asian Guy/American Guy/Nhan/Khue); Jennifer Ikeda (Tong); Raymond Lee (Quang); Samantha Quan (Asian Girl/American Girl/Thu/Huong/Translator/Flower Girl); Paco Tolson (Playwright/Giai/Bobby/Captain Chambers/Redneck Biker/Hippie Dude)
Scenic design by Tim Mackabee; costume design by Anthony Tran; lighting design by Justin Townsend; sound design by Shane Rettig; projection design by Jared Mezzocchi; production stage manager, Charles M. Turner III; original casting by Joanne DaNaut; additional casting by Nancy Piccione & Kelly Gllespie; stage manager, Sara Cox Bradley. Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club, Lynne Meadow, Artistic Director, Barry Grove, Executive Producer; in association with South Coast Repertory. At New York City Center Stage I, 131 West 55th Street. For tickets call CityTix at 212-581-1212 or visit www.nycitycenter.org or the New York City Center box office at 131 West 55th Street.