It’s tempting to describe Writers Theatre’s production of Vietgone as a master stroke of timing. Inspired by the story of the playwright’s parents, who met and fell in love in 1975 in an Arkansas camp for Vietnamese refugees, Qui Nguyen’s 2015 show is making its Chicago debut at a time when America’s treatment of immigrants is at the forefront of the news cycle. But such a framing would do a disservice to Nguyen’s deeply personal script. After all, the play ends with Nguyen’s father, Quang (the swaggering, electric Matthew C. Yee), exhorting his son (Ian Michael Minh) to never forget that he isn’t really American or Asian: He’s Vietnamese. It’s not an immigrant story. It’s these immigrants’ story.
With exuberant theatricality, Vietgone ricochets through time and space, leading the audience from Vietnam to Arkansas and the open roads of the American Southwest. Quang is a cocky helicopter pilot, desperate to get back to the wife and kids he left behind in Southeast Asia. Fellow refugee Tong (Aurora Adachi-Winter, who has cornered the local market in belligerent spunk) believes in sex but not love, and is excited to start a new life in America. They meet through Tong’s mother (the uproarious Emjoy Gavino), and begin a torrid affair that falls apart when Tong explores a relationship with a local soldier and Quang embarks on an epic, ill-advised road trip to California with his best friend, Nhan (Rammel Chan).
The play’s endgame is never in doubt—after all, Qui Nguyen exists—but the journey is a hoot, thanks to Nguyen’s calling card: inventiveness suffused with pop culture. He brings a comic-book aesthetic to his parents’ story, complete with a ninja fight and an 80’s rom-com montage. In a clever device, he has the Vietnamese characters speak perfect English while the American characters speak in a bizarre (and very funny) gibberish: the Vietnamese are the empathetic protagonists, and the Americans are the alien ones.
But when Quang and Tong pour their hearts out in shaky rap interludes (set to music by Gabriel Ruiz), the show stops dead. It’s not easy to wrangle Vietgone’s many style shifts and plot threads, and Lavina Jadhwani’s production struggles to capture the play’s heart and mad-scientist flair. The action is dwarfed by designer Yu Shibagaki’s titanic air-hanger set and Rasean Davonte Johnson’s stage-swallowing projections. Jokes fall flat; dramatic moments go limp. The casting and writing are solid, but the rhythm—the timing—is off.
Writer’s Theatre. By Qui Nguyen. Directed by Lavina Jadhwani. With Matthew C. Yee, Aurora Adachi-Winter, Rammel Chan, Emjoy Gavino, Ian Michael Minh. Running time: 2hrs 20mins. One intermission.