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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 25, 2016

Jennifer Ikeda and Raymond Lee
Photo by Carol Rosegg

The American experience is not (and never has been) exclusively white, even if so many of the narrative genres—and their associated films—linked to it frequently are. With his new play Vietgone, which just opened at City Center in a Manhattan Theatre Club production, Qui Nguyen isn't so much appropriating them as he is changing the lens on the camera that captures them. Everything you think you know and expect is up for grabs, and once he gets his fingers around it, it's not going to be quite the same again. The result of his loving meddling is an evening that may not visit a lot of new territory, but goes in all the familiar places in alternately refreshing, funny, and moving ways.

Nguyen explains his game at the very start, too, through an actor (Paco Tolson) who pops onstage to deliver the pre-show speech and introduce the festivities in his name. He introduces us to a "completely made-up man" named Quang (Raymond Lee) and a "completely not-real woman" named Tong (Jennifer Ikeda) who, he assures cannot possibly be playing his parents. And though they are Vietnamese, they will not be speaking in stereotypically broken English—we'll hear them not only fluid and fluent, but as they might sound today, rather than in the mid-1970s setting: "Yo, what's up, white people?", Tong demonstrates; an example of what we won't here follows soon after: "Herro! Prease to meeting you! I so Asian! Say Cheesu!"

(It's the white folks who get that treatment, we quickly learn. One such sample: "Yee-haw! Get'er done! Cheeseburger, waffle fries, cholesterol!")

With the prejudicial poles flipped from the get-go, anything is possible, and that's about what transpires. What follows is a giddy and unpredictable mashup of genres as Quang and Tong, who both fled their battle-ravaged country years earlier, are struggling to restart those lives now that they're safely ensconced in the United States. There's the road movie, as Quang and his friend Nhan (Jon Hoche), rocket across the country on their motorcycles in an attempt to get back overseas. There's the romantic comedy, which kindles during the flashbacks to Quang and Tong's earliest flirtations and meetings at a refugee camp in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. There are, at times, the makings of a serious drama, as the war was—is—very real to most everyone we meet. Sometimes the action lapses into a musical, with rap solos, familiar songs (most affectingly, "Mama, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys"), and a plot-nudging montage or two.

Astonishingly, none of this feels extraneous or gratuitous. It all registers exactly as it seems was intended: as a whimsical retelling of a personal folk tale, history as filtered through an impatient just-past-millennial with an active Netflix subscription. And despite the (intentionally) broad playing style, passionate, complex feelings do indeed come through as Quang and Tong try to distill their pasts into something easy enough for the other to swallow, something that's not easy given the baggage they both lug around. (Tong has her mother, wittily played by Samantha Quan; Quang is married with children, though none of them were able to escape Vietnam as he did.) This eventually coalesces into a powerful expression of love from Nguyen to his, uh, non-parents, and we see, in an especially touching epilogue, the important, unexpected gifts they're able to give him in exchange for chronicling their relationship.

The Full Cast
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Vietgone does not entirely benefit from the nonlinear chronology Nguyen has imposed, which seldom reveals a compelling reason for zig-zagging about in time so much, and the zaniness does start to wear a bit thin once it takes over almost completely near the middle of the second act. Even during the weaker stretches, though, director May Adrales keeps the pacing sprightly and the froth bubbling, and keeps you from remaining at sea for long. In this, she has a tremendous amount of help from designers Anthony Tran (costumes), Justin Townsend (lights), Shane Retting (sound), and especially Tim Mackabee and Jared Mezzocchi, whose respective collaboration on sets and projections turn the proceedings into a constantly swirling, Technicolor-comic-book frenzy that has us leaping about the U.S. and the globe without ever getting lost.

Lee and Ikeda share a marvelous comic chemistry, which is continually branding and rebranding them as the perfect pair that just doesn't quite know it. Ikeda, in particular, has so precisely tuned her performance that joke setups and payoffs, pillow-talk banter, and breath-stealing recollections of unthinkable atrocities all come from the same place in her heart. Lee doesn't get that deep, but he comes close, and is totally believable as a man who's truly wedged between two worlds. Tolson, Hoche, and Quan are less committed to realism, but nonetheless beautifully execute their oversize portrayals.

As hilarious as they ensure Vietgone is, don't be surprised if you remember the darker and tenser moments more. When it comes to these, just as with the silly stuff, Nguyen isn't afraid to take chances, and a lot of them pay off. Every family, of any color and ethnicity, has its own tragedies and trials, but it can be easy to lose sight of those that occur on a canvas broader than what fits between the walls of our homes. This play may not be about Nguyen's parents—really! It's not! The actor playing him said so!—but it's so specific that it becomes universal, tapping into the essential Americanism that they, and their endlessly creative son, so vividly represent.

Through November 27
Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center – Stage I, 131 West 55th Street
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