Goodbye, Vietnam

Surrender any adherence to the classical unities, the well-made play and even common sense with Vietgone. This is a play all over time, space, identity and genre, incorporating everything from hip-hop to comic imagery into a frenetic, constantly enjoyable ride bound by nothing but the incomparable imagination of playwright Qui Nguyen.

This is billed as a world premiere produced in association with the Manhattan Theatre Club, a theater of no small repute in a backwater burg on the other side of the country, and touts a director, May Adrales, with a sparking list of credits at major regional theaters. But there is definitely an off-off-Broadway sensibility to it, which only makes sense, since Nguyen and a couple of key actors are involved with the Vampire Cowboys Theatre Co., a pioneer of so-called “geek theater,” which, as Scott Stiffler wrote in The Villager in 2011, “takes what we know about pop-culture icons, images and narrative traditions and mercilessly deconstructs them without abandoning its sincere admiration for the endearing excesses and shitty shortcomings of comic books, sci-fi and superheroes.”

There are no caped crusaders or teleporting in Vietgone, but there's definitely an allegiance to a comic-like sense of freewheeling adventure to the tale, which takes place before, during and after 1975 (sometimes at the same time) and is set in Vietnam, a refugee camp in Arkansas and a long stretch of the American road ending in Oceanside. This is a road story, a journey that traverses both the diaspora of the thousands of Vietnamese displaced after the fall of Saigon and the less violent, but equally tumultuous and torturous, pathways of the human heart.

It's also a memory play, albeit one in which memories are grossly exaggerated and wildly spun into a narrative less concerned with accurate detail than creating a theatrical world in which stereotypes and caricatures are simultaneously skewered and embraced.

It's also ridiculously funny.

The fourth wall lasts for about two seconds. The play begins with the Playwright (Paco Tolson, who is electrifying in a variety of roles) welcoming the audience to the theater, introducing the other characters, and then explaining that this is a story about two entirely made-up people who absolutely have no connection to his parents. The beginning serves as a glossary for all that transpires. Though the Vietnamese characters were born and raised in Vietnam, they talk as if they are 21st-century Anywhere Americans, dropping slang such as homie and bro, as well as a plethora of F bombs, or peddle in shameful stereotypes such as Herro! Prease to meeting you! I so Asian! The American characters talk in nonsensical phrases such as Yee-haw! and Get 'er done! and Cheeseburger, waffle fries, cholesterol!

Then our male protagonist, Quang (a rock-solid Raymond Lee), is driving his rusted-out motorcycle on an American interstate in 1975 while dropping a rap about being a suicidal, yellow motherfucker hell-bent on returning to Vietnam and wiping out the evil VC. On the back of the bike is his terrified friend, Nhan (Jon Hoche, who also shines in a number of roles), who served with Quang in the South Vietnamese army. They're making a cross-country trek from the Arkansas refugee camp they wound up in to Oceanside, where Quang has a crazy idea of hopping a military transport to Guam and returning home to save his wife and two children, whom he was forced to leave behind.

In a series of flashbacks, flash-sideways and flash-whatever-the-fucks, we meet two Vietnamese women who are also at the refugee camp: Tong (Maureen Sebastian) and her mother (Samantha Quan). Both are ferociously talented actors, with Sebastian busting every ethnic and gender role imaginable and Quan reveling in every Old Vietnamese Woman in the Nail Salon stereotype. Quang and Tong are, of course, destined to meet each other, and while the plight of war refugees serves as the backdrop for everything, this is really a story about loveā€”its frenzy and complications, its highs and lows, and plenty of fucking.

Strangely, while you never know what to expect, there's a sense of predictability about the characters' fates that Nguyen's story isn't able to shake. And one can argue that the frequent diversions into hip-hop don't do enough to move the story forward to justify their inclusion. But in a play in which traditional structure and imagery is gleefully jettisoned in every way possible (such as set designer Timothy R. Mackabee's cut-outs of military helicopters and splashy comic-book-panel-like backdrops), the excess and extraneous bits are easily overlooked.

The somewhat-predictable story and questionable ending, which feels shoehorned, makes Vietgone one of those plays in which the whole never quite equals the sum of its parts. Usually, that means a theatrical experience is unsatisfying. But when those parts click and hum in such a combustible engine, all you can do is strap in, hold on and enjoy one hell of a ride. In other words: “Fuck a duck, yella fella. Fuck a duck.”

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