”Vietgone,” an unusual blend of broad comedy with ending touches of sentiment and insight, focuses on the travails of a South Vietnamese man and woman who separately immigrate to the U.S. during the 1975 fall of Saigon, and meet at a relocation camp in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. The playwright, Qui Nguyen, co-founder of the New York theater troupe “Vampire Cowboys,” whose previous works have been unquestionably fully-American comedies, tries to combine his raucous style with personal biographical content about the couple.
The actor in the role of the playwright (played by Jomar Tagatac), with tongue in cheek, assures the audience at the start of the production that “Vietgone” is not about his parents: “All characters appearing in this work are fictitious … that especially goes for any person or persons who could be related to the playwright. Specifically his parents.” The author’s stand-in also warns that the characters speak differently than one would expect. In a novel example of reverse racism, the actors in the Vietnamese roles speak in perfect 21st century American slang, while those playing Americans speak in nonsense sentences comprised of Americanisms: “Yee-haw! Get ‘er done. Cheeseburger, waffle fries, cholesterol.” In this two-act, 140-minute production, the smartly designed quick succession of scenes switch back and forth in time and location, and though the scene changes may cause some confusion, they also keep the action moving a pace, in keeping with the creative direction by Jaime Castañeda.
In the initial scenes during the 1975 fall of Saigon, Quang (James Seol), a married South Vietnamese pilot for, waits with his best friend, Nhan (Stephen Hu) before they helicopter out. Unfortunately, Quang and his wife and children are separated in the chaos and he arrives in the U.S. without them. In separate scenes in Saigon, Tong (Jenelle Chu) dismisses a maudlin proposal of marriage from Giai (Jomar Tagatac), and she winds up in the States with her amusing, complaining widowed mother Huong (Cindy Im).
Quang and Tong meet and engage in an unusual unromantic courtship, as befits two people who have endured, been forced to leave their homeland and find themselves adrift in a strange land. In the meantime, Quang and his friend Nhan take a motorcycle trip to California, meeting American hippies and others along the way. The ostensible purpose of the trip is for Quang to sail from California to Vietnam to return to his family, but Nhan points out (only at the very end of the trip) that his life in Vietnam has ended and going home is futile. In one fabulous scene, Quang returns to Tong and they reenact brief clips of iconic 1980s rom-com movies.
In the final scene, which is much more realistic in dialogue and style and poignant in sentiment, the playwright interviews his now elderly father about the war. We see here Qui Nguyen’s potential to be an excellent and subtle writer, rather than merely relying on easy flippancy and irreverence.
This entertaining show with a first-rate cast has had successful runs on both coasts (South Coast Repertory, New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival). Although it is amusing and enjoyable, it is also a mishmash of dialects, scenes and genres, including original only so-so hip-hop music, Motown rhythms and brief action excerpts. This jumble keeps “Vietgone” light and fast-paced, but also makes the characters seem a bit cartoonish with only glimpses of the three-dimensional people who have suffered great loss and made a tough adjustment to a new home.
Emily S. Mendel
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