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South Vietnamese Refugees Do America in Vietgone

Qui Nguyen's road-trip comedy-drama arrives at American Conservatory Theater.

Cindy Im and Jenelle Chu in Vietgone, directed by Jaime Castañeda, at American Conservatory Theater.
(© Kevin Berne)

Bold, irreverent, and laugh-out-loud funny, Qui Nguyen's Vietgone, at American Conservatory Theater's Strand Theater, can also be frustratingly scattershot and amateurish. Nguyen wants to be sexy and feisty in this examination of what it means to be an immigrant in the United States, and at times he is. He can also be heartfelt, and that's when the play is at its best.

From the start, Nguyen attempts to defy expectations when he has an actor pretending to be him (Jomar Tagatac) tell the audience what they're about to see. Even though the play begins with the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam War and has a great deal to do with that conflict, he says this is a play about love, not war. Specifically, it's a love story about two people who resemble his parents but are definitely not his parents. He also describes how characters will be speaking. The Vietnamese characters will not speak with the kind of Asian accents we're too used to hearing on stage or screen. Rather, these characters will speak in a hip, urban lingo more akin to today than 1975 when most of the play's action takes place. The American characters will speak in explosions of stereotypical nonsense involving words like "NASCAR," "Botox," "freckles," and, of course, "cheeseburger."

This introduction builds an excitement that slowly dwindles throughout Act 1. Nguyen jumps back and forth in time as we meet the main character, Quang (James Seol), a South Vietnamese man who, like many of his military compatriots, was trained in the US and is now fighting the Viet Cong. With the abrupt withdrawal of American troops, Quang lands in a refugee camp in Arkansas, thousands of miles away from his wife and two young children.

At the camp, he hooks up with Tong (Jenelle Chu), who does not want to be burdened by romance, let alone love. She is in the camp with her mother (Cindy Im), and Quang is a welcome distraction — until he and his best bud Nhan (Stephen Hu) head for California on a rickety old motorcycle so they can catch a boat to Guam and then a plane back to Vietnam.

Director Jaime Castañeda has difficulty smoothing the script's jagged edges as it tries to balance reality, fantasy, comedy, and drama. In one egregious sequence, Quang and Tong's affair is played out as quick scenes from Dirty Dancing and Ghost with some "Gangnam Style" choreography thrown in for good measure. Moments later, we're given a mother-daughter bonding scene that aims for sincerity but fights against its proximity to the still-lingering goofiness.

Act 1's leaps and lurches are not helped by the intermittent rap numbers foisted on the actors, who perform them with varying degrees of success. Slippery rhymes and prerecorded music (by Shammy Dee) keep the numbers from making any kind of dramatic impact and register more as mild curiosities than anything else.

The show's design — set by Brian Sidney Bembridge, lighting by Wen-Ling Liao — is minimal, with a turntable set for quick transitions between Vietnam and America and a second level that serves as everything from a helicopter to a military perimeter to an aircraft carrier. Chris Lundahl's projections give life to the motorcycle journey and help us keep track of where (and when) we are. But it all still ends up feeling choppy and, at times, irritating.

The developing love story, the road trip, and some good laughs keep interest from totally flagging during the show's two-plus hours. But it's only late in Act 2, when Nguyen stops with the theatrical tricks, tone shifts, and musical numbers that the play comes most fully to life. The meta-theatrics return with Tagatac back playing the playwright as he sits down to interview his father (Seol playing the much older Quang) about his experience of Vietnam and the war. Full of emotion, humor, and insight, this long scene — beautifully played by the two actors — makes all the irreverence and inconsistency that precede it seem worth the trip.


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