There are few topics more horrifying and less funny than one’s parents’ sexuality. But Qui Nguyen, one of the hottest American playwrights of the moment, has embraced the embarrassment of parental porking to make Vietgone, a story of homes and loves lost and found in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. This DC premiere of an prize-winning play gets a rollicking, punky production guided by local phenom Natsu Onoda Power that showcases the uncontradictory chaos and hope of postwar life for Vietnamese refugees.
DC theater audience veterans will recognize Power’s style in the design: modularity in set pieces, wild and specialized lighting, and evocatively imaginative props. But cleverly shifting bunk beds that transform into trucks and helicopters, shockingly packed battens, and a motorcycle evoked by a crutch and handlebars aren’t the only Power signature here. These elements, along with the earnest grace of the actors physicality, all serve the emotional purpose of a play that lives in the stomach, that is, one that is full of gut punches and belly laughs.
The play follows Quang and Tong, a man and woman in early middle age who by virtue of their service to the South Vietnamese regime find themselves under mortal threat and with the chance to escape that threat. Quang (who is not based on the playwright’s father at all, wink wink) is a helicopter pilot in the the Republic of Vietnam army whose escape leaves behind a wife he loves and two children who war has left unknown to him. Tong (not at all Nguyen’s mother, nudge nudge) leverages her embassy job to fly to America to save her mother, but she leaves behind her beloved brother and her fiance.
Starting immediately before the Fall of Saigon and ending a year later at the Fort Chaffee Arkansas refugee camp, much of Vietgone embodies the confusing reality of the Vietnamese immigrant experience. Power’s direction helps here, using low tech signs and props appearing from all directions where the script calls for projections, one of the many times a director’s instincts trumps a playwright’s stage directions. The environment of the play is in a wood frame and plastic tarp set that shows off famously classy local designer Tony Cisek’s knack for a DIY feel that aids the raw feel.
The writing helps even more, especially with a wonderfully clever device from Nguyen: the legibility of the Vietnamese and American dialects are reversed. The Vietnamese people in the play speak in an early 90s American dialect of Nguyen’s youth, and the Americans sound overly American (“Whoop whoop, fist bump. Mozzarella sticks, tator tot, french fry.” is a real line from an American officer in the play). But Nguyen takes this condition to the next level by creating a story where love makes sense in a place that doesn’t.
Well, love but also lust. Nguyen rightly names Vietgone a sex comedy, not a romance, and this Studio Theatre production delivers on the difference. Marc delaCruz as Quang and Regina Aquino as Tong have a playful chemistry that erupts into eroticism over the course of the play. It certainly helps that delaCruz is one of the most beautiful men I’ve ever seen in my life.
closes May 20, 2018
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He’s got a great singing voice, too, unsurprising for a Broadway actor. Music is a significant mood-setter throughout the play, with a live rock band composed of the original musical composers of the play. The music is not only environmental, but the play contains a handful of rock musical style songs that act as emotional shortcuts throughout the play.
Like many theatrical rock musicals in small spaces, sound balance is a huge struggle for the production. But more than that, the musical aspects of the production live in an unfortunate middle between a fully realized musical score and a Shakespearean smattering. Vietgone the play is subtly and powerfully written, but Vietgone the musical is scattered and unsatisfying.
Nguyen and Power do wind up saving the experience from being dragged down too much by mediocre music with an absolutely killer final scene that takes place in present day between the playwright and his father that turns the conventions of the play on their head. This scene alone demands the play not be missed. But the real reason you want to catch Vietgone is to set your eyes on what a 21st century play will look like, with an ethos and a liveness that sets the standard for plays of its kind. Not to mention leave your laughing all the way home at the playwright’s parents’ lusty shenanigans.
Vietgone by Qui Nguyen. Directed by Natsu Onoda Power. Featuring Marc delaCruz, Joe Ngo, Eileen Rivera, Regina Aquino, and Jacob Yeh. Lighting Design by Heather Gilbert. Music Direction, Sound Design, and Composition by Jeff Song. Dramaturgy by Lauren Halvorsen. Set Design by Tony Cisek. Costume Design by Frank Labovitz. Stage Management by Lauren Pekel. Produced by Studio Theatre. Reviewed by Alan Katz.