Qui Nguyen's Vietgone, playing at Seattle Repertory Theatre through January 1, is a love story within a love story during wartime. Quang (James Ryen) is a cocky pilot in the South Vietnamese Army. When Saigon falls, he winds up in an American refugee camp with Tong (Jeena Yi), a skeptic of true love who's constantly trying to fight back the advances of weepy men. She's a self-described "bitch," he's a self-described "asshole," and they'd be perfect for each other if not for their current relationship statuses—he's got a wife and kids back home, and she may or may not be engaged.
The playwright includes himself in this story, framing the core romantic tale about his parents, Quang and Tong, with a familial, meta-theatrical one about the process of interviewing them and writing about it.
Nguyen draws on cinematic and theatrical genre conventions from ninja movies, rom-coms, adventure flicks, and rap musicals, which keeps the energy levels high. Despite (or perhaps because of) the context of war, a generally breezy, almost cartoonishly funny sexual tone dominates the play. While all performers embody this spirit, Amy Kim Waschke's performance as Tong's powerful and powerfully flirtatious mother, Huong, stands out. Her slapstick is balletic, all her jokes land, and her rare swings into seriousness never feel forced.
The quality of the comedy is enough to keep the play rolling along just fine, but Nguyen's use of one brilliant linguistic conceit critiques American culture in a way I've never quite seen before.
At the beginning of the play, "Nguyen" announces that the main characters are Vietnamese speakers who don't speak English fluently but who, nevertheless, speak in unaccented English. When the American characters "speak Vietnamese," they use exaggerated cowboy accents and imperfect syntax. So they end up saying stuff like "Your mom very pretty." When the American characters speak in their native tongue, they say stuff like "Cheeseburger baseball—discrimination!"
This choice essentially presents the story from the Vietnamese characters' perspective, but in English. It's a structural stroke of genius that works with and against stereotypes to grant native English speakers access to a story about people who speak another language, while at the same time effectively and humorously criticizing native English speakers for Othering non-native speakers for their accents. With this one move, Nguyen upends stereotypes that attend so many wartime romances, and it's perfectly executed.
Another unexpected gesture is Quang's moving defense of the war in Vietnam. In his view, leftists (and especially American leftists, and especially-especially self-congratulatory or self-pitying leftists) who paint the war as a major American blunder trivialize the lives of the Vietnamese who fought to protect their families and their freedom from communist occupation. I rarely hear this critique, but then again I rarely hear perspectives from South Vietnamese soldiers in the first place.
Like the play, Seth Reiser's lighting design is loud, but not at the expense of nuance. His dream sequences seduce us in pinkish-purple hazes before morphing into nightmares and, along with scenic designer Sara Ryung Clement, he makes the storied American landscape look like the brochure it is, in both its plastic sheeniness and its OMG-how-could-that-not-be-plastic glory.
I do have one criticism, though. Borrowing from the musical-theater tradition, the characters burst into song when they want to convey their deepest emotions, the ones impossible to express in dialogue alone. But instead of launching into protracted ballads or jazzy numbers, the characters start rapping. With the exception of one instance, the rapping in this play doesn't work. The rhymes are trite and the beats sound like Casio presets. I don't care how good a performer you are, there's just no way to sell a line like "Mary Jane, wash away all this pain in my brain."
But aside from that one wrong note, it's hard not to be equally charmed and challenged by this show. Another of Nguyen's plays, The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G, is running at the UW Glenn Hughes Penthouse Theatre through December 11. Go see that first and then see this one.