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Lauren Yee's Fabulous Cambodian Rock Band Is the First Great Play of 2020

Yee's award-winning drama comes to the Pershing Square Signature Center.

A scene from Cambodian Rock Band at the Pershing Square Signature Center.
(© Joan Marcus)

In theater circles, Lauren Yee's Cambodian Rock Band has become one of those mythical titles after only two years of existence. A genre-exploding drama with music about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, the work has been seen at several major regional theaters across the country and has won multiple prestigious awards, including the Horton Foote Prize. It's one of those plays that everyone in the know has whispered about, and now that it's reached its New York City premiere via Signature Theatre, we completely understand why.

Toggling between 1975 and 2008, Cambodian Rock Band is a survivor's story. In the present, Cambodian-American Neary (Courtney Reed) is working with the International Center for Transitional Justice to prosecute war criminal Duch (Francis Jue), who ordered the executions of thousands of Cambodian citizens as he ran the infamous S-21 Prison in Phnom Penh. It was long thought that only seven prisoners managed to survive Duch's reign of terror, but Neary has discovered — and is searching for — an eighth whose identity is unknown.

Enter Neary's father, Chum (Joe Ngo), a former musician who has suddenly decided to visit Cambodia for the first time since he fled 30 years earlier. And the secrets Chum has never wanted to reveal spring to life around him as he's forced to confront the darkest chapter of his life.

Cambodian Rock Band may not be one of the most surprising plays in terms of its twists, but it is deeply affecting, noteworthy theater. While the fish-out-of-water comedy in the first 45 minutes is staged a little too vigorously by director Chay Yew, the real arc of Cambodian Rock Band suddenly kicks into high gear afterward, sneaking up on you while you're not looking. The second act, which gives us a firsthand look at the Cambodian genocide in action through a series of tense, confrontational scenes between Chum, his former bandmate and now captor Leng (Moses Villarama), and prison master Duch, is as powerful as great Shoah films like Life Is Beautiful and Schindler's List.

Moses Villarama, Joe Ngo, Courtney Reed, and Abraham Kim in Lauren Yee's Cambodian Rock Band at the Pershing Square Signature Center.
(© Joan Marcus)

Since the Khmer Rouge aimed to eradicate music, particularly Western-influenced music, from Cambodia, Yee punctuates her play with authentic Cambodian surfer rock, played live by her company (most of the songs are by the Long Beach-based band Dengue Fever). Authentic, real, and exciting, these interludes give us a few moments to catch our breath, while also providing us with a direct look at all that could have been lost to time and history as lives and families were decimated. It's a secret weapon that allows the work to have an even greater emotional impact, with sound designer Mikhail Fiksel, set designer Takeshi Kata, and lighting designer David Weiner turning the Pershing Square Signature Center into a space that feels as vast as Madison Square Garden.

Wearing authentic period costumes by Linda Cho, the ensemble in Cambodian Rock Band is largely terrific, though Jue, who should be portraying the cool, collected, quietly menacing banality of evil, showboats distractingly, delivering the equivalent of an over-the-top football touchdown dance. But the evening belongs to Ngo, whose parents were Khmer Rouge survivors. His transformations from young to old Chum and back again, accomplished only with subtle changes of posture or expression, are nothing short of magnificent. His work is one of the many great pleasures I derived from Yew's rousing production.

Few plays take on the Cambodian genocide as a subject, and that in and of itself makes this production worthwhile. But the real achievement of Yee's script is its humanity. This is a big-hearted, life-affirming look at a terrible tragedy that ends with a high-spirited rock concert. Cambodian Rock Band shows us how music has the power to save our souls when all hope seems lost.