A couple of Vietnamese evacuees fall in love in an Arkansas refugee camp circa 1975 in Qui Nguyen’s rap-fueled, manga-spiced, profanity-packed Vietgone, now getting an electrifyingly innovative and ultimately quite powerful World Premiere at South Coast Repertory.
None other than the playwright himself opens the show with assurances that “all persons appearing in this work are fictitious” and that this “especially goes for any person or persons who could be related to the playwright, specifically his parents, who this play is absolutely not about.”
Two things become immediately clear from this intro, that a) Vietgone’s romantic protagonists will in fact be the farthest thing from fictitious, and b) that Nguyen is quite the prankster, having punked the more gullible in the audience into believing that he himself has shown up to narrate and not actor Paco Tolson in his place.
A third thing becomes equally evident, that the Vietnamese who brought Nguyen into this world have the filthiest potty mouths of any characters seen onstage since South Coast Rep presented Stephen Adly Guirges’s The Motherf**cker With the Hat.
Take the first words that emerge from Qui’s future mother Tong’s mouth (“It is so fucking nice to fucking meet all you fucking people”) as an indication of what’s to come.
Fortunately there is much more to Vietgone than two hours of (in this reviewer’s humble opinion) mostly gratuitous foul language … and hey, if this is how Nguyen’s family circle actually speaks, who am I to judge?
First and foremost are the thoroughly engaging characters who populate this “entirely fictional” romcom.
Quang (Raymond Lee) and Tong (Maureen Sebastian) are as boy-and-girl-next-door likeable as Friends With Benefit’s Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis—assuming that that movie’s R-rated romance had taken place in Chafee, Arkansas and not in NYC and LA.
Alternating between pre-fall-of-Saigon Vietnam and fresh-new-start America, Vietgone gives us Quang’s and Tong’s back-story characters—his wife and her boyfriend—along with their new Arkansas entourage—Quang’s refugee camp sidekick Nhan (Jon Hoche), Tong’s mom Huong (Samantha Quan), and assorted Vietnamese-mangling Americans—plus the characters Quang and Nhan encounter on the Easy Rider road trip to California that our hero hopes will be the first step in a return to wife and preschool-age kids in Vietnam.
That we know from the get-go that Quang and Tong will end up together and give life to playwright Nguyen takes away any suspense as to whether Quang will make good his plans to reunite with faraway wifey, though this hardly matters given the great time we’re having along the way.
Much of the fun in Vietgone comes from Nguyen’s love of comic books, samurai stories, and hip hop, all of which figure prominently.
Timothy R. Mackabee’s striking scenic design vividly replicates the Arkansas plains along with the billboards that line the highways of Quang and Nhan’s road trip, but what audiences will likely recall most are Jared Mezzocchi’s LED projections that explode like animated manga along the way.
There’s also some exciting kung fu ninja combat (the playwright is credited as movement coach) to spice up the action while doing Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan proud.
Most memorable of all is the hip hop that (anachronism be damned) gives Vietgone contemporary spark, the most thrilling raps since Lin Manuel Miranda’s in In The Heights, and electrically performed by Lee and Sebastian. (Note how sound designer Shane Rettig amps their voices the second they start rapping to his sizzling original music.)
Director May Adrales clearly understands playwright Nguyen’s style and sensibility, eliciting sensational performances from her entire cast.
Lee and Sebastian have the looks, the bods, the comedic-dramatic chops, and the romantic chemistry to make them pitch-perfect choices to play Quang and Tong, and both could easily have side careers in hip hop.
Supporting them are the equally splendid Hoche, Quan, and Tolson, who dazzle in four to six roles each, among them Hoche’s Seth Roganesque Nhan, Quan’s fabulously feisty Huong, and Tolson’s pathetically head-over-heels Giai and equally lovestruck Captain Chambers. (One of Nguyen’s cleverest conceits is to have us hear the American captain’s second-language Vietnamese as pidgin English with an Arkansas twang.) Quan and Tolson’s perpetually stoned Flower Girl and Hippie Dude are great fun too.
Vietgone’s striking production design is completed by the topnotch contributions of costumer Anthony Tran (who has actors wearing several layers to facilitate multiple quick changes) and by Jaymi Lee Smith’s gorgeously saturated lighting design.
Joshua Marchesi is production manager and Kathryn Davies is stage manager. Casting is by Joanne DeNaut, CSA. Andy Knight is dramaturg.
Nguyen ends Vietgone with a final scene likely to give audience members a new perspective on the Vietnam War, a moving coda to a captivating evening otherwise filled with laughter, romance, and the F word.
South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Through October 25. Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:45, Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 and 7:45. No evening performance on Sunday October 25. Reservations: (714) 708-5552
October 14, 2105
Photos: Debora Robinson and Ben Horak, SCR