The purgatorial predicament facing the two central characters in Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone is one of being displaced, of being neither here nor there — a sensation that’s heightened when here is hostile and there has been blown to bits. Most of it is set in 1975 at a camp for Vietnamese refugees in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. Having fled as U.S. forces were leaving Saigon, Quang (Raymond Lee), a fighter pilot in the South Vietnamese air force, is haunted by guilt for leaving his wife and small children behind. Tong (a wry, lively Jennifer Ikeda) is determined to start over, even if that means walling off her feelings and always playing tough. The Americans they meet (soldiers, hippies, bikers) are either well-meaning but clueless or outright racist.
But the actual thrust of the play is that, even when there’s a pit of ineradicable pain in your gut, life and love can go on. We see Quang and Tong suffer nightmares and flashbacks, but the romance that builds between them is tender, sexy, and ebullient, filled with stolen moments on Tong’s government-issue bunk bed. The springiness in the script is enhanced by May Adrales’s vivid staging, which features confessional rap interludes, a hallucinatory fight sequence, and graphic-novel-like projections designed by Jared Mezzocchi.
Because an occasional narrator (Paco Tolson) tells us right off that Quang and Tong are based on the playwright’s real-life parents, the ending of their story is never in doubt. But Nguyen, whose previous work with the Obie-winning Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company evinces a comic, B-movie sensibility, toys with expectations in other ways, especially when it comes to language.
The play’s Vietnamese characters — including Quang’s dopey best friend (Jon Hoche) and Tong’s persnickety mother (a hilarious Samantha Quan) — speak in hip-hop-inflected English (“I speak eloquently and shit”), while the Americans use broken English (“Me am work here”) that often devolves into strings of gibberish, with terms like “french fries,” “Donald Duck,” and “howdy” thrown together at random. This device serves several purposes: It’s funny, it flips the script on a very real language barrier, and it centralizes Vietnamese characters in a story about the Vietnam War (for once). In doing so, it reminds us of the human stories behind our own era’s displaced.
By Qui Nguyen
Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center
131 West 55th Street
Through November 27