Theater review: Playwright lampoons stereotypes in poignant, playful 'Vietgone'
"Vietgone" - ★ ★ ★
"Vietgone" -- Qui Nguyen's sly, self-aware tale of Vietnamese refugees in 1970s America -- wears its political incorrectness proudly and well.
Affectionately anachronistic and gleefully irreverent, the 2015 dramedy challenges audiences the moment the curtain rises on director Lavina Jadhwani's confident Chicago area-premiere at Writers Theatre in Glencoe.
An actor identifying himself as the Playwright (Ian Michael Minh as Nguyen's fictional self) strides onstage and insists the characters in his combination rom-com and road trip are fictitious. Their resemblance to his parents is entirely coincidental, he says.
He goes on to remind the audience of the cringe-inducing characteristics often assigned Asian characters. But with the introduction of his parents Quang (Matthew C. Yee) and Tong (Aurora Adachi-Winter), he upends those distasteful stereotypes. Quang and Tong speak Nguyen's contemporary, hip-hop inspired patois fluently. It's the American characters who fracture their syntax and utter gibberish such as "Yeehaw! Get'er done! Cheeseburger, waffle fries, cholesterol!"
Nguyen lampoons characters equally in his unique, playful and sometimes poignant examination of immigration, assimilation and love. Set in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and told in a nonlinear style against a rap-infused soundtrack, "Vietgone" is essentially a love story between a pair of refugees who separately flee their war-torn homeland and meet at a relocation camp in the U.S.
We meet them days before the fall of Saigon as U.S. embassy worker Tong (Adachi-Winter, as tormented as she is determined) receives a tearful proposal from her milquetoast boyfriend Giai (also played by Minh). Meanwhile Quang (a restless, guilt-ridden Yee), a helicopter pilot with the South Vietnamese Army whose job keeps him away from his family, has a frosty reunion with his wife Thu (Emjoy Gavino).
As the North Vietnamese overrun the city, Tong escapes with her bossy mother Huong (also played by the terrifically tetchy Gavino). They wind up at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, one of four military bases that became a temporary home to Vietnamese evacuees, including Quang and his best friend Nhan (the likable Rammel Chan).
For Tong, relocation means a chance to remake her life. Her mother is less impressed and wants to go home. So does Quang, who was forced to leave his wife and two children in Saigon and is determined to return to them.
That doesn't keep him from starting an affair with Tong, which he breaks off so he can take a cross-country motorcycle trip with Nhan to California where he intends to hop a ship bound for Vietnam.
Nguyen juxtaposes scenes from the road trip (during which Quang and Nhan encounter hippies, bigots and ninjas) with scenes depicting Tong and Quang's affair (fondly lifted from such 1980s films as "Say Anything," "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "Sixteen Candles").
A kind of whimsy -- evident in an over-the-top, ninja fight scene that unfolds like a combination professional wrestling match and superhero adventure film -- underscores "Vietgone." Rap songs, set to music by Gabriel Ruiz, punctuate the action which unfolds on Yu Shibagaki's austere, barracks-style set. Its walls provide the backdrop for Rasean Davonte Johnson's striking projections.
For all the intensity Adachi-Winter and Yee invest in the rap songs, the numbers feel forced and not fully integrated into the story. To that point, several songs are accompanied by pulsating lights (suggestive of a nightclub) that jerk us out of the narrative.
Jadhwani's production has appeal. Her cast is able and the actors nail Nguyen's jokes. But the show feels emotionally detached on occasion, which is puzzling considering what's at stake.
Ultimately, "Vietgone" is a play that needs to be pondered. The longer I contemplated it as I drove home from the theater and then drifted off to sleep, the more I liked it.
Still, the story needs streamlining. Nguyen repeats himself and the dialogue can be didactic and glib. But there's something fresh and bold about his writing. And the richly resonant final scene -- an epilogue that takes place in 2015 -- is quite moving. In it, the Playwright and Quang attempt to reconcile their contradictory perceptions of the war. That scene makes up for any missteps that preceded it, sending us from the theater a little more enlightened than we were when we arrived.
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Location: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, (847) 242-6000 or writerstheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday; through Sept. 23. Also 3 p.m. on select Wednesdays
Running time: About two hours, 30 minutes including intermission
Parking: Street parking available
Rating: Suitable for adults; contains strong language, sexual situations, professional wrestling-inspired violence