ACT's 'Vietgone' Lands Somewhere Between Brilliant and Awful

Quang (James Seol) gives his best friend Nhan (Stephen Hu) a ride through the southwest. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

Two months ago during the intermission of Star Finch’s terrific Bondage, I spent fifteen absurd minutes with three random theatergoers parsing and debating the meaning of the title of Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone, the new play receiving its Bay Area premiere under Jaime Casteneda’s lively direction at ACT’s Strand Theater.

I thought the title was an obvious, straightforward reference to the fall of Saigon and the plight of South Vietnamese refugees; a woman wearing a fox fur boa thought it was a clever pun on the Vietcong. “Too clever,” countered a balding gentleman in a plaid jacket, only to be counter-countered by a full-bearded fellow in a black cowboy hat and rhinestone boots. He claimed that all our interpretations “could be subsumed under the playwright’s obvious allusion to Sophocles’ Antigone and that the play was probably about burying the dead, exile, the proper way to mourn the loss of family, country, and a way of life.”

(L to R) Nhan (Stephen Hu) and Quang (James Seol) helicopter as many people as they can to safety after the fall of Saigon.
(L to R) Nhan (Stephen Hu) and Quang (James Seol) helicopter as many people as they can to safety after the fall of Saigon. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

We all nodded in unison. “Impressive,” baldy in plaid murmured. “Well, whatever it means,” fox fur added, “It must have been agony.” Laughing at her witticism, the house manager ushered us in for the second act. It says a great deal about Nguyen’s roving imagination that everything we said was true, though none of us could have guessed how terrific and awful Vietgone would be, perhaps the most unbalanced play in terms of quality I’ve seen in some time — or ever for that matter.

At his best, Nguyen has written a haunting, neo-Brechtian, rap-infused epic that follows party girl Tong and family man-fighter pilot Quang (a brilliant James Seol) as they escape Saigon, end up in a refugee camp in Arkansas, and discover just how vast America is. That it all ends at a dining room table in 2015 is a wonderful demonstration of how every epic takes us home, even when returning home is an impossibility.

Nguyen catches the richness and imperfection of Tong and Quang’s lives in Saigon. Tong is resisting the repeated proposals of the hapless fellow she’s sleeping with from time to time, desperate to escape the expectations of her family to marry and settle down. And Quang is certain of South Vietnamese victory (with American help) or at least not sudden defeat, while yearning to see his young children. When his wife visits him without bringing his son and daughter, he’s devastated, already a ghost to his own life.

Quang (James Seol) is devastated when his wife Thu (Cindy Im) visits him without their children.
Quang (James Seol) is devastated when his wife Thu (Cindy Im) visits him without their children. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

Neither of these two ordinary people are ready for the Vietcong’s victory. Through no fault of their own they're catapulted out of one world and into another uncertain American one — Tong with her disapproving mother and Quang with his best friend Nhan. Vietgone is deadly effective when it’s at its simplest, just people talking to one another about what they care for and what they've lost. And Quang and Tong’s hip-hop soliloquies are a perfect example of this.

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In 1975 hip-hop was just a glimmer in the Sugarhill Gang’s collective unconscious. Nguyen's ahistorical redeployment of the form is a lovely kind of cultural appropriation before the fact. When you hear Tong and Quang rap to Shammy Dee’s haunting minor key score, you understand how rapping is a solace to all those who are dispossessed and angry. At moments like these you can’t deny that Vietgone possesses a kind of conceptual genius, and that Nguyen has found or reinvigorated a more fluid and expressive form of playwriting than we’re used to in the American theater.

So here’s the damning, sad fact of it all. In the midst of all this brilliance is some truly dreadful writing — weak-minded parodies, sitcom tripe, and post-modern juvenilia. The play begins with the playwright (one of the actors playing Nguyen) laying out the rules of the play. It’s the type of postmodern knowingness and false experimentalism that masks what essentially is a conservative and retrograde impulse: let me lead you by the hand so you do not have to think.

(L to R) Tong (Jenelle Chu) and her mother Huong (Cindy Im) argue about the merits of American life.
(L to R) Tong (Jenelle Chu) and her mother Huong (Cindy Im) argue about the merits of American life. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

Rather than slip into the subtleties of a complex world, the play too often panders to our supposed ignorance and disinterest. Tong’s mother is drawn in such broad, unrealistic strokes that the only way Cindy Im can play her is to wallow in the worst kind of comic shtick. She’s not so much a character as a series of gimmicks and many of her scenes cripple the play’s delicate sense of reality.

In not trusting the audience to understand what’s before them, you can sense Nguyen losing trust in his material. In the second act he relies on a series of movie parodies to both move along and comment on the action. Every one of them is a disaster of nonsense, from a montage of rom-com classics (Say Anything, Ghost) to a Kill Bill fight sequence that only serves to remind you what a dedicated and precise artist Quentin Tarantino is.

But then there’s the last scene, where the fictionalized playwright Nguyen, who turns out to be Quang’s son, interviews his father. It's a lovely, funny, and searching conversation that in many ways is a rebuke to Nguyen’s lack of artistic discipline. Hectoring his father to tell him the truth of the Vietnam war, or at least the truth a young liberal artist would want to hear, Quang sets him straight, both politically (“When America come [to fight], they gave us hope”) and artistically — “Stick to writing funny plays, son, this stuff too sad for old man like me to recount just to help you write another war story.”

Quang (James Seol) and best friend Nhan (Stephen Hu) get into a ruckus with a redneck (Jomar Tagatac).
Quang (James Seol) and best friend Nhan (Stephen Hu) get into a ruckus with a redneck (Jomar Tagatac). (Pho0to: Kevin Berne)

It’s a sharp critique from a fictional father to a fictional son of Nguyen’s own making, and real advice that the real Nguyen should have heeded.

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'Vietgone' runs through Sunday, April 22, at the Strand Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information click here.

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