Friday, October 21, 2016

Vietgone *** B+

Qui Nguyen’s new play at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I is hard to fit into a neat category. While the prevailing tone is comedic, it deals with some very serious issues. Its central focus is a Vietnamese couple who meet in a refugee camp in Arkansas. Quang (Raymond Lee) is a helicopter pilot wracked by guilt for being unable to rescue his wife and children when Saigon fell. Tong (Jennifer Ikeda) is an emotionally closed-off woman who wanted to escape with her younger brother but ended up being forced to take her difficult mother instead. Sexual sparks fly when Tong and Quang meet, but the emotional baggage they carry is a barrier to building a relationship. Besides, Quang wants to return to Vietnam to rejoin his family. We also meet Quang’s best friend, an American naval captain, a translator, a camp guard, a hippy couple, a redneck biker and even a character who purports to be the playwright. All the female roles except Tong are played by Samantha Quan; all the male roles except for Quang are played by Jon Hoche and Paco Tolson. The play incorporates a love story, a road trip with a hilarious kung fu sequence, a send up of ethnic and national stereotypes, broad (sometimes too broad) humor, all in the context of presenting an alternative view of the Vietnam era as seen from the other side. While the play is not a musical, every once in a while, when emotions are running high, a character will suddenly break out into rap. It’s unfortunate that I had just seen Hamilton a week before because the quality of the rap lyrics here (to music by Shane Rettig) can in no way compare to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work. The cast members are appealing, but the acting is uneven and often unsubtle. The first-rate production benefits from an excellent scenic design by Tim Mackabee, featuring a western scene of a highway with utility poles, power lines and billboards, greatly enhanced by Jared Mezzocchi’s projections. Anthony Tran’s costumes are excellent too. Director May Adrales skillfully holds it all together. It’s an unruly play that could use a slight trim, but its energy and inventiveness go a long way to make up for its shortcomings. I found it refreshing and worthwhile. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes including intermission.

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