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A CurtainUp Review
Vietgone is garnished heavily with potty humor and a generous dollop of rap — the kind that mostly begs for more wit, an overdose of sexual hanky-panky that tends to gives gratuitous behavior a bad rap. Add to that one particularly over-baked and protracted tirade on America's involvement in Vietnam.
So where is the love story that evidently springs from the real life experiences of Nguyen's parents, two Vietnamese refugees? They're real but at the same time seen through a rather distractingly sophomoric lens, that frames its story with songs and shtick in hand that mimics an extended Saturday Night Live sketch. At its best, we are offered validation of the playwright's gift for the crudely surreal.
It is actually the surreal aspects — the exciting visuals — of the production, under the helter-skelter direction of May Adrales, that make this otherwise over-long skit defensible. Within the cleverly serviceable cartoon-like setting by Tim Mackabee is a dazzling display of colorful comic book illustrations and also real life film. These projections and the superb lighting by Justin Townsend offer plenty of escape from the mostly outlandish doings on the stage.
At the play's core is the genuine urgency of intimacy that sparks the budding romance between two thirty year olds Quang (Raymond Lee) and Tong (Jennifer Ikeda). Quang is a Vietnamese fighter pilot who, having left his wife and two young children during the fall of Saigon, finds himself at Fort Chaffee, a relocation camp in Arkansas. He has fled his homeland along with his friend Nhan (Jon Hoche), with whom he also plans to find a way back home by motorcycling across the country to California. Tong is also in limbo at the same relocation camp where she and her mother Huong (Samantha Quan) are grieved that they had to leave her devoted brother Khue (also played by Hoch among a number of other roles) in Vietnam.
Sex for sex's sake plays as a rather elementary mission for Quang and Tong from the beginning of their relationship. However, the bond between Quang and the love-starved Nhan also grows amusing as they experience America on their absurdist road adventure. Their cleverly choreographed encounter with a thuggish red-neck (Paco Tolson) and his Ninja cohorts is diverting and was for me the play's highlight .
We also get the message that is made by the plethora of colloquialisms and the syntactic jumble as this spoken by an American soldier trying to be romantic with Tong: "Seeing you for original time was love in eyeball originals." These exchanges between the Americans stationed in the camp and the Vietnamese are intended for us to see how desperately people caught in unsettled and uncertain circumstances attempt to relate to each other. It is commendable that rap is used as a narrative thread, although there are only so many way to make s..t sound lyrical.
With the play set in 1975, we're taken back and forth between Vietnam and America, as well an aircraft carrier and other locales across America. We are drawn into the story by the playwright himself, also played by Tolson (who multi-tasks in other roles as well). The play eventually then takes a rather startling detour from the satirical/farcical when the playwright unintentionally infuriates his father with inflaming statements about America's involvement in Vietnam. It's grim and a somewhat displaced discourse considering what has previously transpired.
A charismatic Raymond Lee finds a reasonable balance between Quang's intensity of purpose and his undeniable reliance on charm. He is also credible as elderly Quang. Jennifer Ikeda has more difficulty defining the romantically conflicted Tong as more than just an attractive mate-hungry female. Quan (kept busy in various roles) does her level best as Tong's outspoken mother to give a comical lilt to her mostly vulgar declarations.
As the playwright/co-founder of the Obie award-winning company Vampire Cowboys and as a writer for Marvel Studios, Nguyen can be respectfully acknowledged for his decision to avoid anything close to reverential. Perhaps I just wasn't convinced that his honorable family story was best served through this style of politicized farce.
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Vietgone by Qui Nguyen
Directed by May Adrales
Cast: Jon Hoche (Nhan), Jennifer Ikeda (Tong), Raymond Lee (Quang), Samantha Quan (Thu), Paco Tolson (Giai),).
Scenic design: Tim Mackabee
Costumes: Anthony Tran
Lighting: Justin Townsend
Original music and sound: Shane Rettig
Projections: Jared Mezzocchi
Stage Manager: Charles M. Turner III
Runing Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, with 1 intermission
Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center 131 West 55th Street
From 10/04/16; opening 10/25/16; closing 11/27/16.
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman on October 26, 2016
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