Where:Writers Theatre Nichols Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
When: through Sept. 23
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Qui Nguyen’s “Vietgone,” which premiered in 2015 and is making its Chicago debut at Writers Theatre, tells an old story in a new way, using ingenious techniques to challenge our preconceptions and subvert our expectations. The subject is the immigrant experience—specifically of Vietnamese refugees in the United States shortly after the fall of Saigon in 1975—but the style is a mash-up of rom-com, bawdy sex comedy, road trip, quasi-musical, pop culture pastiche, and a whole lot more from the playwright who co-founded New York’s Vampire Cowboys and currently writes for Marvel Studios.
For starters, Nguyen (Ian Michael Minh) breaks down the fourth wall and inserts himself into the play, telling us that it is about two people, Quang (Matthew C. Yee) and Tong (Aurora Adachi-Winter), both 30—who are definitely NOT his parents, even if it seems otherwise. Events don’t unfold chronologically, but rather bop back and forth in time and place, mostly between Saigon both before and after the fall, and Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, one of the four military bases that were used for evacuees from Vietnam, who then had to find U.S. sponsors.
Interspersed are scenes of a motorcycle road trip to California Quang takes with his best friend, Nhan (Rammel Chan), though it’s not clear at first how these fit into the time frame. Along the way, they encounter comic book-worthy characters with various attitudes toward them, from a weed-smoking hippie who decries U.S. involvement in Vietnam to a hog-riding Hell’s Angel type who tries to run them off the road and beat them up (both played by Minh).
Anachronism also is rampant, most noticeably in the rap music. When Quang and Tong are angry, frustrated or despairing, they rap their hearts out to original music by Gabriel Ruiz, who also is the musical director. It’s an interesting safety valve, but the words don’t always flow as well as they could in terms of composition or execution.
More inventive and effective is Nguyen’s linguistic device, which upends our perceptions of the Vietnamese as “the other” and provides a glimpse of how they may see themselves and us. As his character explains the ground rules, when the Vietnamese characters are talking to each other in Vietnamese, we hear it as contemporary profanity-laced English. When the Americans are speaking English, it comes out as a meaningless hodgepodge of words: “Cheeseburger, waffle fries, cholesterol!” When the Americans try to speak Vietnamese, well, it isn’t much better. Breaking down the typical stereotypes, this also allows us to view their experiences through their eyes, at least to some extent.
Quang and Tong meet accidentally at Fort Chaffee, after her flirtatious and annoying mother, Huong (Emjoy Gavino) hits on him. They have an explosive relationship based at first just on sex, as she is emotionally closed and determined to succeed in her new country. He, on the other hand, is just as determined to return to Vietnam, where he had to abandon his wife, Thu (Gavino), and two young children he hardly knew. He had been in the military for eight years, part of that time in the U.S. learning to be a fighter pilot. Hence the road trip: His plan is to go to Camp Pendleton, catch a flight to Guam, then take a boat “home.” Only after Nhan delivers some hard truths to dissuade him does he realize there’s no home for him to go to anymore.
Tong’s back story involves fewer strong ties. We see her before Saigon’s fall trying to fend off a tearful marriage proposal from Giai (Minh) and learn that she’s an embassy worker, which enables her to get two plane tickets out. She desperately wants to take her younger brother, but he refuses to leave his girlfriend. So she reluctantly takes Huong, who has always been hard on her, complains about everything, and initially refuses to go.
Once at Fort Chaffee, Tong works at assimilating despite her mother’s nagging and nightmares about Giai and her brother being dead. On a brighter note, she’s courted by kind and considerate American soldier, Bobby (Minh), which means her romance with Quang doesn’t exactly go smoothly, especially when he tells her about the road trip to go back to Vietnam.
Under Lavina Jadhwani’s direction, the five actors—hard to believe there are only five—all give terrific performances. Yee is strong as Quang with just a hint of softness and the right mix of defiance and irreverence. Adachi-Winter’s Tong is fierce and sexy, yet also everything from sarcastic to vulnerable. Gavino infuses her scenes as Huong with humor without going too far over the top, while she brings dignity to the role of Thu. Minh and Chan play a dizzying number of parts.
Yu Shibagaki’s spare gray scenic design suggests a large garage or warehouse with a back wall of sliding doors that provides a backdrop for Rasean Davonte Johnson’s projections that help bring Saigon and especially the road to California to life. Kudos also go to Sarah Hughey’s lighting, Melissa Ng’s costumes, Kevin O’Donnell’s sound design, and Tommy Rapley’s choreography, which enhances the far-out fantasy interludes.
While some of the scenes (like the one between Tong and Giai) could easily be trimmed, and Jadhwani’s direction could go a little further, a surprising payoff comes in the final scene, which in a sense circles back to the beginning. The character Nguyen is interviewing the now-older Quang, explaining that he wants to write a play about his parents. He asks what the Vietnam War was like, thinking that he’ll get the usual liberal American view that it was a pointless disaster. But after wondering why he wants to know and deflecting the question with embarrassing anecdotes about Nguyen as a baby, Quang gives him a moving earful guaranteed to make us all reconsider our opinions.