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Regional Reviews: Los Angeles

Vietgone
South Coast Repertory
Review by Bill Eadie

Also see Bill's review of A Bright New Boise


Maureen Sebastian and Raymond Lee
The entire topic of the Vietnam war makes many Americans uneasy. It was an adventure driven by misplaced colonial desires and mistaken cultural assumptions. "The Ugly American" was a popular novel of the time, and the war was about the ugliest case around. The U. S. was urged to "declare that we've won and then leave," and eventually that's essentially what we did.

The departure was chaotic, though, and caused many Vietnamese who were loyal to the U. S. to scurry to find any sort of means of escape. Families were separated, and many who were left behind were executed. Those who made it to the U. S. spent time in refugee camps.

Playwright Qui Nguyen uses the evacuation as the backdrop for his play Vietgone, which is receiving its world premiere productions at South Coast Repertory in Orange County and at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York. You'll be in for a surprise if you go expecting to see noble suffering and eventual triumph among refugees. Delightfully, Mr. Nguyen turns the Ugly American stereotype on its ear.

Set at a refugee camp at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, at first look, the Vietnamese arrivals appear to be confused and downtrodden, while the Americans are bumbling and apologetic but trying to be helpful. It soon becomes clear, however, that the Vietnamese are the ones who are hip and with it while the Americans are dolts of one sort or another.

Against this backdrop, Quang (Raymond Lee), a handsome helicopter pilot, meets Tong (Maureen Sebastian) and her brash mother (Samantha Quan). Mom has the hots for Quang, while Tong plays cool and hard to get. Quang is persuasive, though, and the two embark on a sexual relationship while swearing to each other that there's nothing else involved. And, besides, one of the bumbling Americans (Paco Tolson) has been hanging around Tong as well.

Quang, however, feels that he escaped from Vietnam by accident, as he flew refugees out in his helicopter until he was told by the Americans not to go back. He has a wife and two young children in Vietnam, and he wants to return and find them. Quang has heard that a flight to Guam is leaving from Camp Pendleton, California, and he figures if he can get to it he can fly to Guam and figure out how to go the rest of the way from there.

Rehabilitating a junked motorcycle, Quang and a buddy (Jon Hoche) head west. Along the way, they encounter the kinds of wild west episodes that John Wayne (or maybe Bruce Lee) would have savored.

Of course, we already know that Quang and Tong get together, because they're wildly imagined versions of Mr. Nguyen's parents. And, eventually, the playwright lets his father speak, quite eloquently, in his own voice. But, getting there is at least 90% of the fun.

Director May Adrales paces the action quickly, with cast members often making fast changes and often popping up as someone else. Timothy R. Mackabee's scenic design puts Jared Mezzocchi's projection design center stage. Shane Rettig's original music ensures that the road trip won't lose steam.

South Coast Rep has a history of developing both plays and playwrights. The company commissioned this piece and supported Mr. Nguyen through the research and development process. It was a good investment.

Performances continue through October 25, 2015. The schedule is nightly, except Monday, at 7:45pm, with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2:00pm. Tickets are available online at www.scr.org or by phone at 714-708-5555. The theatre is located at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.

South Coast Repertory in association with Manhattan Theatre Club presents the world premiere of Vietgone, by Qui Nguyen. Directed by May Adrales, with Timothy R. Mackabee, scenic design; Anthony Tran, costume design; Jaymi Lee Smith, lighting design; Shane Rettig, original music and sound design; and Jared Mezzocchi, video projection design.

The cast includes Jon Hoche, Raymond Lee, Samantha Quan, Maureen Sebastian and Paco Tolson.


Photo: Ben Horak/SCR

- Bill Eadie




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