At the top of Qui Nguyen’s “Vietgone,” now in its world premiere staging at South Coast Repertory, the charming, ingratiating “Playwright” (Paco Tolson) gives the usual pre-show speech about exits, cell phone and wrapped candies, then goes on to introduce the cast, who display a mastery of the most egregious stereotypes of Asians and Americans. They also put right out there in the very first moments the kind of language the audience can expect – street lingo, blunt hip hop foulness, which will be repeated so often in the show that the words come to have no meaning, mere tropes of language, rhythmic punctuations and exclamations. It’s a blast of freshness that captivates the audience, at least those who cheer the audacity. I didn’t see anyone leave the house.
The Playwright says that the show is a love story, and so it is. Set in 1975 against the backdrop of the fall of Saigon and the mad rush to escape before the city is taken, South Vietnamese helicopter pilot, Quang (charismatic Raymond Lee), is forced to abandon his wife and children who live away from the city, when his copter is pressed into service to evacuate civilians to the USS Midway. He intends to refuel and return for his family only to learn that his helicopter was pushed off the ship to make room for more. Later in a refugee camp in Arkansas, he meets Tong (lovely, feisty Maureen Sebastian). Both are thirty-years of age and carry the baggage of their situations. The fate of Quong’s family is unknown and Tong’s brother refused to flee with her, sending their reluctant mother in his place and perhaps met his death. Despite the guilt Quang feels about his family, he is drawn to the vivacious Tong, a liberated woman who left a pathetic suitor behind and wants no permanent man, especially one who would smother her independence. How they manage to come together is the story.
This journey to love also includes a motorcycle road trip, in which Quang and his best friend Nhan (Jon Hoche, a big guy who carries the comedy, a Costello to Quang’s Abbott), head for the West Coast. Quang feels bound by honor to return to Vietnam and his family. They plan to hop a flight to Guam and then get to Vietnam, exactly how isn’t clear, and in fact is nigh impossible. Of course, a South Vietnamese officer would have little chance of life in a Communist Ho Chi Minh City.
Playwright Qui Nguyen (the real one) takes delight in lampooning both American and Vietnamese culture with outrageous stereotypes. Americans, when they appear, are absurd. According to playwright Nguyen, “…they will sound something like this : ‘Yee-haw! Get’er done! Cheeseburger, waffle fries, cholesterol!’” It is a hilarious rendering of what Vietnamese hear when the Americans speak. And there are more laughs when the Americans try to speak Vietnamese. This strategy leads to lots of hilarity when the cultures collide.
Joining Messrs. Tolson and Hoche as protean actors, Samantha Quan plays six characters, most significantly Quang’s demur wife, Thu, and Tong’s spitfire mother, the randy, reluctant refugee Huong. These three excellent players give life to sixteen distinct characters. Kudos to the backstage wardrobe crew for the quick changes.
The production is visually splendid with an exciting scenic design by Timothy R. Mackabee (lighting by Jaymi Lee Smith) that makes extensive use of projections that indicate place and time. The projection design by Jared Mezzocchi is hip and colorful and often surprisingly subtle, as when the projections match the action onstage. Since the action of the show includes a number of hip hop songs, mostly soliloquys revealing the inner emotions of the characters, sound design is crucial and the sound design and original music by Shane Rettig is simply solid! Costumes by Anthony Tran get the period exactly right.
Direction by May Adrales is excellent and she will be at the helm when the show is staged at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the spring of 2016. The show moves on to New York in the fall of 2016 at the Manhattan Theatre Club, which is billed above the title as “in association” for the SCR production.
“Vietgone,”is a terrific show and received an irresistible standing ovation at the Sunday matinee. “Vietgone,”seems bound for glory. It runs through October 25 at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.