Michael Golamco’s Year Zero—produced by Second Stage’s Uptown Series—is a chain of confrontations going down, mostly, in a disintegrating Cambodian family’s Long Beach living room. Bullied ectomorph teenager Vuthy (Mason Lee) has just seen his Ma cremated. His older sister, Ra (Maureen Sebastian), is home to pack up and hand orphaned Vuthy off to a family friend, so Ra can return to Berkeley and the chartered future micromanaged by her yuppie boyfriend, Glenn (Peter Kim). But those plans don’t account for the resurfacing of Ra’s gangbanger ex, Han (Louis Ozawa Changchien), who tutors Vuthy in street smarts and seems to know more than anyone in the family about their mother’s escape from the Khmer Rouge.
Golamco has Vuthy soliloquy to a skull smuggled home from a trip to the Killing Fields, but Year Zero gets inside big issues of identity better when it (too-rarely) takes a side-door approach, as when Glenn argues to comic-nerd Vuthy that Superman is “the quintessential immigrant story,” and Vuthy imagines that if an Asian baby had come from Krypton: “Kal-El woulda growed up in a group home.”
Lee’s adolescent mortification is more convincing than his stiff slanginess, to match the ellipses of Cambodian hip-hop during frequent scene changes. Golamco likes to cut scenes on a snappy line—but those crisp exits often feel like ducking out before things really get going, hurrying to meet the next life-in-the-balance cliffhanger or timely revelation in an overcrowded schedule.