By Joseph Cervelli
Like a flash of lightning Paco Tolson who plays a number of roles in the out of focus “Vietgone” bounds onto the stage to inform us that he is the playwright of the show which is being presented by the Manhattan Theater Club at City Center. Well, no he is not. The playwright is actually Qui Nguyen who does not make an appearance. Tolson continues that the show is really not a biographical account of the meeting of his mother and father in a refugee camp in the United States. Well, they actually it is. Get the picture? The show does have some find moments of dramatic verve but Nguyen who incorporates both rap and hip hop (unsuccessfully, may I add) is unsure what kind of play he wants this to be. There are too many outlandishly cartoonish moments that reminded me of Marvel Comics and dialogue that feels all too modern for the time period which is the mid 70’s. Add to that performances that are all over the place. It also does not help that the timeline of the play is a bit muddled. The playwright needs to take a step back and get his thoughts together for somewhere in this messy and sketchy comedy/drama there is a good play.
Hectically paced by director May Adrales we learn that Quang (Raymond Lee) was recruited by the U.S. to train here to be a pilot at the start of the Vietman War. He then was sent back to Saigon and during the fall of that city begins to fly refugees including his friend (Jon Hoche) out of the city leaving back his wife and two children back.
When he arrives again in the States he ends up in one of the refugee camps and meets the lovely Tong (Jennifer Ikeda) who thinks being American is to be promiscuous and use four letter words. Well, it is not surprising since her mother overplayed by Samantha Quan is annoyingly foul mother and would like Quang for herself. I always find it annoying when a playwright thinks it is cute to have an older person, although Quan is probably closer to the age of Ikeda, uttering expletives. Tong is unsure about her commitment to Quan rather having him as a sex partner while she has her designs on marrying the American (Hoche) with his stilted Southern accent. Meanwhile, her mother runs around cursing both the men in her daughter’s life.
Throughout this the actors for no apparent reason break into the aforementioned songs laced equally with curses and lyrics that are either cloying or just done for shock value. Aside to Lin Manuel Miranda--you have nothing to worry about with Nguyen being a competitor to your brilliant rap score to “Hamilton.”
And having Quang and his Asian buddy on their motorcycle traveling from Arkansas to California so they can take the next plane back to Vietnam becomes tedious. Along the way they meet two “flower children.” Those scenes are silly as predictable as when they meet a “redneck” and their fighting him comes along with the help of ninjas.
The performances are generally good although they do have a forced not completely reliable feel to them.
The best part of the show are the terrific projections on the billboard sets by Tim Mackabee. Focus on that and it will make the repetitive, overlong show less painful.