Theater Review: VIETGONE (East West Players)

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by Tony Frankel on October 26, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles

GOING, GOING, VIETGONE

Prior to last night’s L.A. premiere of Vietgone, the actor playing playwright Qui Nguyen tells us that his 2015 play is about his parents (“who this play is absolutely not about”), who met and fell in love in 1975 in an Arkansas relocation camp for Vietnamese refugees, jokingly adding that we were assholes if we said anything to them. It makes sense after that intro that Nguyen’s audacious work is chock-a-block with boisterously modern meta-theatrics, bouncing around time and space, as we trek from Saigon to the Deep South to the expansive highways of the American Southwest.

Meet the parents: Quang (Paul Yen), an arrogant helicopter aviator, is anxious to return to a wife and kids he was forced to abandon after the fall of Saigon, whereas Tong, who adores sex but abhors love, is thrilled to begin life anew in America (Sylvia Kwan nails Tong’s pugnacious pluck and barreling bitchery).

After being introduced through Tong’s mother (Jane Lui), the hot pair hunker down for some steamy hanky-panky. But the affair crumbles when Tong sees other guys, including a local blond-haired soldier (Albert Park), and Quang takes off on a heroic, foolhardy road trip to California with his best friend, Nhan (Scott Ly). These three thesps play multiple roles, but the standout is Park, who also plays the playwright and a Redneck Biker in Stephanie A. Nguyen’s hilarious costume, complete with Popeye arms.

We know the couple won’t stay apart forever; remember that our scribe is a character (how apropos that the theater is named for David Henry Hwang, who is also a character in some of his plays).

Thanks to Nguyen’s fertile imagination, this Vietnamese voyage is a fun toot-plunk-and-boom saturated with pop culture. His parents’ story appears as a graphic-novel which cleverly has Vietnamese characters fluent in English (even in gangsta vernacular like “Yo, what’s up, white people?”) while the American characters speak in very funny gobbledygook, as if they’re trying to read from a tourist guidebook. This ensures that the Vietnamese are the sympathetic characters while the Americans are the alien weirdos (how perfect is it that Nguyen’s dad is now the iconic Easy Rider?).

But the elements don’t always mesh together well at East West Players. Some terrific scenes are interrupted by commentary by Quang and Tong, who foist their frustrations through wobbly rap (set to music by Shammy Dee), and every time this happens the show stops dead. Vietgone’s numerous styles, transitions, and plot filaments could also have been helped had director Jennifer Chang elevated the humor: some jokes simply lie there. As physically impressive as her cast is (a ninja fight staged by Thomas Isao Morinaka and Aaron Aoki is a jaw-dropping standout), they’re clearly not blessed with a vaudevillian flair.

As such, the “meh factor” rides high in the first act, saved by dramatic moments which are sounder in the second. (One of the actors, whose parents also came to America from Vietnam during the war, is actually making his stage debut here. Chang stated in an interview: “The cast and I talk about how there is almost no acting required because we know so many aspects of the story.” Welllllll…)

The writing is super solid, as are Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson’s sets and projection, but the production is shakily recommended because it almost works too hard to unearth the play’s universal core and loopy gifts. But it certainly finds gold amidst the ore, such as the touching scene when the playwright’s father, Quang, urges his son to understand that he’s neither Asian nor American — he’s Vietnamese — a gut-punching assessment that augments the conversation about immigration in the world right now.

photos by Michael Lamont

Vietgone
East West Players
David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso Street
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 2
ends on November 11, 2018 EXTENDED to November 18, 2018
for tickets, call 213.625.7000 or visit East West Players

{ 1 comment }

Floyd November 1, 2018 at 2:53 pm

I completely agree. And that was a well-placed “Wellllll…..” in your review. Spot on!

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