In the online manifesto of Vampire Cowboys—a scrappy downtown troupe founded by playwright Qui Nguyen 14 years ago—you’ll find this item: “Vampire Cowboys never perform matinees. Matinees are for old people.” Nguyen’s latest play, Vietgone, is produced by Manhattan Theatre Club, not Vampire Cowboys. And I may have dragged my ancient ass to it on a Sunday afternoon, but Vietgone is easily the freshest, most exuberantly youthful piece I’ve seen at MTC in ages: a punch-drunk mash-up of hip-hop, road movies, sex farce and Vietnamese-American history. Oh, also kick-ass fights.
May Adrales’s high-octane staging moves so swiftly and surely, you may not initially appreciate the buckets of stagecraft she and Nguyen throw at us scene after scene. In design and pacing, the production ransacks the aesthetics of comix and grind house, applying their flashy framing and penchant for sex, drugs and violence to a dead-serious story of war, displacement and assimilation. Jared Mezzocchi's vibrant, graphic-novel video projections and set designer Tim Mackabee's collaged-locations set conjure the perfect cartoon atmosphere. For added spice, Nguyen includes rap monologues (beats by Shane Rettig) that invite favorable comparisons to Hamilton. Eschewing realism from the get-go, Nguyen has a Playwright (Paco Tolson) explain the rules of his world: Vietnamese characters speak in profanity-laced but precise English, whereas Americans’ dialogue is limited to, “Get’er done! Cheeseburger, waffle fries, cholesterol!” It’s not the first time Nguyen flips the cultural script for laughs and theatrical effect.
Plotwise, Vietgone tracks the parallel fates of pilot Quang (Raymond Lee) and Tong (Jennifer Ikeda), who flee South Vietnam when the Viet Cong overrun their country. Our attractive heroes are relocated to a refugee camp in desolate Arkansas, where Tong aims to turn American as fast as possible, while Quang and his goofball sidekick, Nhan (Jon Hoche), hop a motorcycle for California, planning to return and fight. Problem is, Quang has fallen for Tong, despite guilt over leaving his wife and children back home. It's the immigrant narrative, but told with disarming frankness and humor—plus a roadside throwdown involving rednecks and ninjas.
I cannot emphasize enough what a versatile and lovable cast this is, with comic dynamos Tolson, Hoche and Samantha Quan juggling a dozen characters among them, pulling off the most clownish business. Ikeda and Lee heat up scenes with genuine sparks and charm, and Nguyen crafts a final scene that bluntly underscores the stakes for his (semi-fictionalized) father while retaining the irreverent vibe. Pop-loving hell-raisers like Vietgone remind you that theater used to be a scruffy, pulpy and disreputable affair. Just ask the matinee senior spectators; they remember.
Manhattan Theatre Club (Off Broadway). By Qui Nguyen. Directed by May Adrales. With Jon Hoche, Jennifer Ikeda, Raymond Lee, Samantha Quan and Paco Tolson. Through Nov 27. Click here for full ticket and venue information.
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