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Derek Nguyen's intriguing if convoluted play set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War gets a highly uneven staging. logo
Daniel Lê and Deanna Gibson in Monster
(© Corky Lee)
A private investigator's past and present collide as he looks into the disappearance of a missing teenager in Derek Nguyen's Monster, being presented by Pan Asian Repertory at the West End Theatre. It's a two-tiered noir which unfolds against the backdrop of the legacy of the Vietnam War and the plight of that country's orphaned and abandoned children. And while the multilayered piece intrigues, Nguyen's often convoluted and confusing storytelling and a host of overly broad performances in director Kaipo Schwab's uneven staging, make the production a less than rewarding experience.

As the play opens, Det. Tang Tran (Daniel Lê), a contemporary private eye of the tough-talking, hardboiled old school, receives a call from Flora (played with frantic toughness by Patricia Randell) asking for his assistance in finding her teenage son Jonny, who also stands accused of having severely beaten a young Vietnamese man (Claro de los Reyes) before his disappearance.

It's a case that opens up a host of issues for Tran because -- like Jonny -- he was born in Vietnam and raised in the U.S. by adoptive parents. As Tran looks for the young man -- a journey which takes him from Southern California to the south and northeast (indicated by Rocco D'Santi's beautifully conceived and cleverly executed projections) -- he comes to recognize how similar he and his quarry are: both suffer the wounds of having been wrested from their homeland and have borne the painful costs of assimilation.

Tran's psychological wounds, on many levels, have contributed to his pending divorce from Molly (Deanna Gibson), following the death of their daughter who was born with birth defects because of Tran's exposure to agent orange as a child. Disconnected from his heritage, he has been unable to connect within his marriage, as Molly reminds him during one of the couple's recrimination-filled battles.

Nguyen's play becomes even more complicated as Tran begins hearing the voice of an unseen child, causing theatergoers to question his sanity. And, even as this occurs, the lines between Tran's and Jonny's lives blur, which calls into question the verity of the play's narrative.

Furthermore, audiences must digest polemics about the war and its aftermath as well as contemporary issues such as teen violence and pregnancy, which are brought up as Tran interviews Jonny's girlfriend (also played by Gibson), his guidance counselor (one of two raucous turns from Tonia Jackson), and his adoptive father (Justin R.G. Holcomb).

Lê's heavy-handed and callously aggressive performance makes it nearly impossible to feel any sympathy for Tran, and yet, during the play's climax as Tran meets Jonny's birth mother (Tran T. Thuc Hanh in one of the production's most sensitive turns), theatergoers come to wonder if Tran has been investigating his own past, making it difficult to not wonder if the anger inherent in the performance has been warranted.

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