At first blush, Qui Nguyen’s latest drama, Trial by Water, based on his cousin Hung’s disastrous escape from Vietnam via boat, seems a radical departure from the playwright’s oeuvre. Nguyen’s other works have included phantasmagorics (with an emphasis on “gore”) such as the Vampire Cowboy Trilogy and a zombie riff on Hamlet entitled Living Dead in Denmark. But fans of horror drama needn’t fear. Though it takes its plot from true events, this seascape contains sufficient mutilated corpses to satisfy the most bloodthirsty theatergoer.
Armed with thermoses of water and sacks of boiled potatoes, the Tran brothers, 15-year-old Hung and 13-year-old Huy (Dinh Q. Doan and Genevieve DeVeyra), ship out from Vietnam to avoid the political menace threatening their parents. At first, Nguyen (and director John Gould Rubin) intercut shipboard scenes with flashbacks of parental counsel, a hoary device that slows the action. But as the script progresses, the play gains confidence in its own nightmarishness. Only when the boat’s engines fail and rations run out does Nguyen hit his gruesome stride.
Gould Rubin directs the butchery rather fast and shrilly. DeVeyra’s terribly impressive as a 13-year-old boy and Doan lends an unripe gravity to the older sibling, but they speak at such a hurried clip, that much conversation passes by unheard. Like Nguyen, Gould Rubin’s interest seems to lie in the script’s gorier aspects—an understandable perspective, but perhaps a regrettable one. Beneath the shrieks and fake blood, Nguyen’s play asks an absorbing question no 15-year-old should have to answer: What does it profit you to gain the whole world if you lose your soul?