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Review: In 'Vietgone,' East West Players takes audiences on the wild ride of Qui Nguyen's rambunctious drama about refugees in love

Review: In 'Vietgone,' East West Players takes audiences on the wild ride of Qui Nguyen's rambunctious drama about refugees in love
Sylvia Kwan, from left, is Tong and Paul Yen plays Quang in East West Players’ Los Angeles premiere production of Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone, directed by Jennifer Chang. (Michael Lamont)

Reencountering Qui Nguyen’s “Vietgone” in the new East West Players production, I am struck once again by the originality of the playwriting.

A quick synopsis of the play might yield the following: A personal drama about how the playwright’s parents fled the Vietnam War and fell in love in an American refugee camp. But that outline would leave out what is fundamental to the experience: Nguyen’s irrepressible (and deliriously anachronistic) theatrical imagination.

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“Vietgone” begins with the traditional preshow announcement, but this time it’s delivered by an actor impersonating the author. Albert Park, in the guise of the nerdy-hip Playwright, welcomes us to the David Henry Hwang Theatre at the Union Center for the Arts, where the play opened Thursday under the direction of Jennifer Chang.

Jane Lui as American Girl, Scott Ly as Nhan, Paul Yen as Quang and Albert Park as Hippie Dude in East West Players’ Los Angeles premiere production of Qui Nguyen’s "Vietgone."
Jane Lui as American Girl, Scott Ly as Nhan, Paul Yen as Quang and Albert Park as Hippie Dude in East West Players’ Los Angeles premiere production of Qui Nguyen’s "Vietgone." (Michael Lamon)

After going through the cellphone, candy wrapper, emergency exit spiel, the Playwright protests a little too insistently that the play is not really about his parents. And if anyone rats him out, he’s going to be really pissed.

The 2015 South Coast Repertory world premiere of “Vietgone,” ingeniously directed by May Adrales, served the play as a pop-art, vintage rap, multimedia singularity. Kinetic and colorfully kaleidoscopic, the staging made a fantasy fight scene with ninjas completely logical. (Nguyen, co-founder of the Obie-winning Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company, has an unhinged comic book sensibility.)

Chang’s production has some trouble in the first half navigating the hairpin turns of the play’s antic style. The cartoon comedy doesn’t always land, and the canned musical background for the hip-hop monologues drains energy from the performers. (Seeing “Vietgone” after “Hamilton” is a strange experience. The play isn’t a musical, but Lin-Manuel Miranda has set the rapping bar astronomically high.)

The production radically improves, however, in the second act. After the intermission, the broad humor has more bite and the wackiness is attacked with more conviction. The martial arts fight scene (choreographed by Thomas Isao Morinaka and Aaron Aoki) goes on too long, but it’s a quizzically madcap spectacle.

Paul Yen is stupendous from start to finish as Quang, the Playwright’s charismatic bad boy father. Yen raps with as much swagger as he fast-talks the super contemporary slang Nguyen feeds the characters. When Yen’s Quang sails on his stationary jalopy of a motorcycle, he’s like an Asian James Dean: a refugee with a wrenching cause.

After being rescued by the U.S. Navy, Quang is desperate to make it back to Vietnam to be reunited with the wife and children he hardly knows because of the war he’s been fighting. He hasn’t yet accepted that the fall of Saigon means he can never go home again. He plays it cool with his buddy Nhan (a terrific Scott Ly), who’s perpetually in randy overdrive, but guilt is strangling him.

Yen never allows the comic frenzy to unmoor him from the pathos. He has a light touch with the character, but Quang’s every emotion is felt. And those emotions inflame when Quang meets Tong (Sylvia Kwan), who is as lovely as she is sharp-tongued – and as lustfully drawn to Yen as he is to her.

Kwan’s rapping skills aren’t all that formidable. But she brings a refreshing tartness to her portrayal of Tong, who is not what anyone would call a people-pleaser, even though she is Quang’s fantasy come true in bed.

Tong’s scenes with her mother, Huong (Jane Lui), whom she convinces to flee to America, fall a bit flat. Huong hates being holed up in military barracks in nowheresville, Arkansas. The fried food turns her stomach, and she can’t bear the pathetic way Bobby (Park donning a blond wig), an earnest American soldier at the refugee camp, is swooning over Tong.

Lui paints a crisp comic portrait of a meddling mother whose will is as strong as her daughter’s, but the rhythm of these scenes is off. Huong’s role in the naturally obstacle-riddled romance between Quang and Tong gives Lui more to do than reel off middling retorts, and her performance grows noticeably more confident.

Some of the minor American figures whom Quang and Nhan meet when they take off for the California coast in the hope of finding their way back to Vietnam are clumsily sketched. The problem isn’t that they’re gag roles — it’s that the zaniness could use more precision.

But despite these shortcomings, Chang’s staging beautifully realizes the depth of feeling swelling inside this haunted play. The romantic comedy that Quang and Tong unexpectedly find themselves in is given a starker reality by the trauma of war they are both figuring out how to survive. Yen and Kwan let in just the right amount of grief into the erotic mania.

At South Coast Rep, the gravitas of the final scene — in which, the Playwright returns to interview his now elderly father about his wartime experiences — was delivered almost as a coup. The ending is more organically reached in this East West Players production. A faint trail of tears — the audiences’ even more than the characters’ — guides the journey toward this reckoning between survivor father and artist son, a conclusion that daringly keeps an open mind about America’s controversial role in the Vietnam War.

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The physical staging (with sets and projections by Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson) struggles a bit to keep pace with Nugyen’s fanciful imagination. But the complicated heart of this quicksilver play tenderly comes through.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Vietgone’

Where: David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center of the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso St., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (call for exceptions). Ends Nov. 18

Tickets: $40-$60

Info: (213) 625-7000 or www.eastwestplayers.org

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

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