Off Broadway Reviews
Nguyen explains his game at the very start, too, through an actor (Paco Tolson) who pops onstage to deliver the pre-show speech and introduce the festivities in his name. He introduces us to a "completely made-up man" named Quang (Raymond Lee) and a "completely not-real woman" named Tong (Jennifer Ikeda) who, he assures cannot possibly be playing his parents. And though they are Vietnamese, they will not be speaking in stereotypically broken Englishwe'll hear them not only fluid and fluent, but as they might sound today, rather than in the mid-1970s setting: "Yo, what's up, white people?", Tong demonstrates; an example of what we won't here follows soon after: "Herro! Prease to meeting you! I so Asian! Say Cheesu!"
(It's the white folks who get that treatment, we quickly learn. One such sample: "Yee-haw! Get'er done! Cheeseburger, waffle fries, cholesterol!")
With the prejudicial poles flipped from the get-go, anything is possible, and that's about what transpires. What follows is a giddy and unpredictable mashup of genres as Quang and Tong, who both fled their battle-ravaged country years earlier, are struggling to restart those lives now that they're safely ensconced in the United States. There's the road movie, as Quang and his friend Nhan (Jon Hoche), rocket across the country on their motorcycles in an attempt to get back overseas. There's the romantic comedy, which kindles during the flashbacks to Quang and Tong's earliest flirtations and meetings at a refugee camp in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. There are, at times, the makings of a serious drama, as the war wasisvery real to most everyone we meet. Sometimes the action lapses into a musical, with rap solos, familiar songs (most affectingly, "Mama, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys"), and a plot-nudging montage or two.
Astonishingly, none of this feels extraneous or gratuitous. It all registers exactly as it seems was intended: as a whimsical retelling of a personal folk tale, history as filtered through an impatient just-past-millennial with an active Netflix subscription. And despite the (intentionally) broad playing style, passionate, complex feelings do indeed come through as Quang and Tong try to distill their pasts into something easy enough for the other to swallow, something that's not easy given the baggage they both lug around. (Tong has her mother, wittily played by Samantha Quan; Quang is married with children, though none of them were able to escape Vietnam as he did.) This eventually coalesces into a powerful expression of love from Nguyen to his, uh, non-parents, and we see, in an especially touching epilogue, the important, unexpected gifts they're able to give him in exchange for chronicling their relationship.
Lee and Ikeda share a marvelous comic chemistry, which is continually branding and rebranding them as the perfect pair that just doesn't quite know it. Ikeda, in particular, has so precisely tuned her performance that joke setups and payoffs, pillow-talk banter, and breath-stealing recollections of unthinkable atrocities all come from the same place in her heart. Lee doesn't get that deep, but he comes close, and is totally believable as a man who's truly wedged between two worlds. Tolson, Hoche, and Quan are less committed to realism, but nonetheless beautifully execute their oversize portrayals.
As hilarious as they ensure Vietgone is, don't be surprised if you remember the darker and tenser moments more. When it comes to these, just as with the silly stuff, Nguyen isn't afraid to take chances, and a lot of them pay off. Every family, of any color and ethnicity, has its own tragedies and trials, but it can be easy to lose sight of those that occur on a canvas broader than what fits between the walls of our homes. This play may not be about Nguyen's parentsreally! It's not! The actor playing him said so!but it's so specific that it becomes universal, tapping into the essential Americanism that they, and their endlessly creative son, so vividly represent.