Review

'Vietgone' is a journey of intersecting lives after the fall of Saigon

Charles McNulty
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Theater Critic

The program for South Coast Repertory's production of Qui Nguyen's "Vietgone," which is having its world premiere in Costa Mesa, has some interesting biographical tidbits about the author that illuminate his irreverent, pop-culture-recycling style.

A playwright and fight director "often credited as a pioneer of 'geek theatre,' " Nguyen co-founded the New York-based Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company, which "holds the unique distinction of being the first and currently only professional theatre organization to be officially sponsored by New York Comic Con."

These elements of his background inform the rambunctious way "Vietgone" capers, somersaults and karate-kicks along. The play has geeks, tongue-in-cheek fight scenes and action that could have sprung from a comic book targeted to millennials wearing thick black glasses and skinny jeans.

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The manner might seem unusual given the seriousness of the story. "Vietgone" follows the intersecting fates of a man and woman who meet in America at a refugee center after fleeing Vietnam during the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Nguyen, whose horseplay happily turns meta-theatrical, writes himself into the play. (Paco Tolson plays the character known as Qui Nguyen.) After reminding us to turn off our cellphones and unwrap our candy, the author's impostor introduces us to the main characters.

These are not based on his parents, he anxiously insists. And if anyone in the audience rats him out to his folks, he's going to be really ticked off.

Quang (Raymond Lee), "a completely made-up man," and Tong (Maureen Sebastian), "a completely not-real woman," have left behind worlds for an uncertain future. Perhaps to keep their sanity, they treat their tragedies not with solemnity but with flippant wit, anger and a stream of unrepeatable and highly original curses.

Neither speaks as you might imagine. The playwright explains that the stereotypical "Herro! Prease to meeting you! I so Asian" argot has been scrapped for "Any of you fly ladies wanna get …" — better cut it off there for the general readership, though Nguyen has a charmingly humorous way with profanity.

The language is more revealing of the playwright's generational influences than his characters'. A good deal of the play's slang wasn't yet in circulation in the mid-1970s. Quang raps as though he had been listening to Ice Cube all through high school in Saigon.

But to accuse Nguyen of anachronism is to miss the point. The playwright is engaged in a multifaceted act of freehand translation. He wants to recapture the youthful vitality of his characters in a way that will speak to his own contemporaries.

He also doesn't want to make the mistake of defining Quang and Tong by their calamities. Their escape from a war-ravaged country shouldn't erase their singular personalities or dilute their desire for a life not just free of bloodshed and terror but filled with those private things that make life livable.

The production, directed with controlled spunk by May Adrales, is faithful to the era in one notable way: The music that is played — a sampling of Marvin Gaye grooves, a sexy Barry White epiphany — channels the American zeitgeist of the time while loosening bodies onstage and in the audience.

The play moves back and forth in time in a hectic rhythm that can make it tricky initially to keep track of the characters and the chronology. The supporting cast members, who include Jon Hoche and Samantha Quan along with Tolson, giddily assume multiple roles, leading to some confusion despite the playfully exaggerated way the characters are distinguished.

The titles of some of Nguyen's plays might give you the flavor of his sensibility: "She Kills Monsters," "Aliens Versus Cheerleaders," "Alice in Slasherland." The outrageous things that happen in "Vietgone" — the abandonment and murder of family members — are pulled from history, but a history that seems painfully close to home.

The play's fantasy-fiction style keeps things from becoming too real, but the haunting aftermath is palpable all the same. Realism isn't the only way to get at difficult truth, and in certain traumatic cases it may be the least effective mode.

The production's shifting mood (from sex farce to violent flashbacks to musical jamboree) is reflected in Jared Mezzocchi's pop-art-tinged projections, which are displayed on two billboards arrayed on Timothy R. Mackabee's cockeyed set. Everything is loosely sketched, including the junky motorbike that Quang rides to California, where he hopes to catch a flight to Guam and then a boat to Vietnam to rescue the family he was forced to leave behind.

The pathos of Quang's quixotic mission and his unplanned romance with Tong, a great beauty who has little interest in acting demure after all that she's been through, have a sneaky emotional power. Just as a graphic novel can sometimes capture historical horror more vividly than documentary attempts, Nguyen's antic manner conveys the extent of his characters' losses and their brave determination to survive them more piercingly than a more sentimentally somber work.

There is an argument in the play's final scene between the playwright (who makes a return visit) and his father (Quang, aged a few decades) about America's involvement in the Vietnam War. The notion that this was a pointless war offends the old man, who says he owes his life to America. This is yet another way in which Nguyen jars us into seeing the story with fresh eyes.

"Vietgone" careens wildly, threatening whiplash to heighten our amusement. By the end, however, this riotous theatrical cartoon won me over with its simple honesty.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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'Vietgone'

Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends Oct 25.

Tickets: $22-$74

Info: (714) 708-5555, www.scr.org

Running time: 2 hours

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