Review by Donna Herman
26 October 2016
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 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 essentially an 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.
"For positive proof that in certain realms of theater, we have moved firmly beyond political correctness, see 'Vietgone,' a raucous comedy by Qui Nguyen that strafes just about every subject it tackles and every character it presents. Sure, sometimes it wobbles uncertainly between satire and sentiment, but Mr. Nguyen’s fresh and impish voice rarely lets up as he thumbs his nose at our expectations."
Charles Isherwood for New York Times
"I cannot emphasize enough what a versatile and lovable cast this is, with comic dynamos Tolson, Hoche and Samantha Quan juggling a dozen characters among them, pulling off the most clownish business."
David Cote for Time Out New York
"Wildly imaginative and funny, if a bit overstuffed."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
"Qui Nguyen’s biographical play, 'Vietgone,' is a smart variation on what a colleague used to refer to as the 'My Life So Far' play. Instead of being a salute to wonderful Me for the miracle of being Me, the play at Manhattan Theater Club is an original, affectionate and often funny tribute to the playwright’s parents, who met in an American refugee camp after emigrating here after the fall of Saigon."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
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