Not only does Nguyen have a unique sensibility and style, but the story is told entirely from the Vietnamese-American point of view, one not often seen on our stages. We hear the Americans as the Vietnamese do and as the Americans attempt to speak in Vietnamese. While the structure of the play is quite challenging going backwards and forwards in time from July 1975 in a Middle America relocation camp and breaking out in rap songs periodically, Vietgone is a very compelling portrait of displaced people trying to make a new life for themselves while wishing they were back home where they cannot go.
The play tells several parallel stories: Quang (Raymond Lee), a Vietnamese helicopter pilot, and his best friend Nhan (Jon Hoche), are evacuated at the time of the fall of Saigon to Camp Chaffee, Arkansas, leaving behind his wife and children. There he meets Tong (Jennifer Okeda), an embassy employee, also evacuated from Saigon along with her mother Huong (Samantha Quan). She leaves behind a fiancé and her brother. In comic fashion we see their discontent with American food, their camp accommodations and the fact that the Americans cannot speak to them in Vietnamese nor do they respond as they would like as their English is so poor or nonexistent.
Although Tong and Quang hook up with the blessing of her mother (until she finds out that he is married), it is his plan to motorcycle to Camp Pendleton, California, catch a plane to Guam and from there hop a boat to Vietnam. However, though Nhan goes with him on this cross country trip, Nhan warns him that the Vietcong will not let him pick up his life where he left it. Along the way, we see Quang and Nhan have crazy and poignant adventures in Amarillo, Texas; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Flagstaff, Arizona; and finally Oceanside, California. When next we see Tong, she has joined a foster family in El Dorado, Arkansas to become assimilated to American life. We also see flashbacks to both Tong and Quang’s life in Saigon as well as nightmares of what has happened to the people they left behind.
The play is at the same time a boy meets girl story, an on the road story, a fish out of water story, and a comedy of bad dates. Tim Mackabee’s clever unit setting of a crossroads in Middle America with two billboards on which Jared Mezzocchi’s projections reveal where and when the scene takes place allows for the cinematic cutting from one scene to another. The structure is a little bit busier than it needs to be with scenes sometimes segueing to earlier scenes to explain something that happened earlier. However, it is never confusing though the play challenges the viewer to follow its permutations.
Adrales’ cast is always high-powered, always engrossing. Jennifer Ikeda is compelling as the foul-mouthed, bitter Tong who is seeking a better life. Raymond Lee is personable and sensitive as Quang who is divided in his feelings for Tong as well as his wife and family back in Vietnam. The other three actors demonstrate tremendous range playing between four and six characters each. Both Jon Hoche and Samantha Quan amusingly play both Asian and American characters. Hoche is droll as Quang’s loyal sidekick and best friend who disagrees with Quang’s choices but goes along for the ride. Quan is memorable as Tong’s equally potty-mouthed mother who loves telling people she is 39 years old and complains continually about what she finds in America, as well as an American Flower child spaced out on weed.
Playing six roles in which he is unrecognizable, Paco Tolson impresses with his bigoted Redneck Biker, magnanimous Hippie Dude, and Bobby, an American soldier who falls in love with Tong at Camp Chaffee but can’t make himself very well understood in Vietnamese. Anthony Tran’s costumes for the 18 characters are always perfectly differentiated. Aside from magnificent setting sun effects, Justin Townsend’s lighting design distinguishes the many locales, one from another.
Downtown theatergoers know the work of Qui Nguyen from his productions at the Vampire Cowboy Theatre Company which he co-founded in 2000. While Vietgone is often untidy and overly complex, this exuberant autobiographical play is a fascinating look at the Vietnamese American experience from their point of view written by an insider. Under the direction of May Adrales, the versatile cast makes this an offbeat and absorbing evening in the theater.
Vietgone (extended through December 4, 2016)
Manhattan Theatre Club in association with South Coast Repertory
New York City Center Stage 131 W. 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.nycitycenter.org
Running time: two hours and 25 minutes with one intermission