Qui Nguyen’s biographical play, “Vietgone,” is a smart variation on what a colleague used to refer to as the “My Life So Far” play. Instead of being a salute to wonderful Me for the miracle of being Me, the play at Manhattan Theater Club is an original, affectionate and often funny tribute to the playwright’s parents, who met in an American refugee camp after emigrating here after the fall of Saigon.
Nguyen, who came out of the downtown geek culture celebrated by this troupe Vampire Cowboys, shows here that he’s also comfortable working in more traditional theatrical forms. In what looks like close collaborative work with his director, May Adrales, the writer makes efficient use of a fluid episodic structure to cover the course of his parents’ lifetime from the time they left Vietnam for America.
A Vietnamese helicopter pilot named Quang Nguyen (Raymond Lee, a leading man) manages to ferry civilians out of Saigon when the city is in free-fall. But he’s unable to go back for his own wife and children, and this will always haunt him. As he swears to his friend and traveling buddy, Nhan Khue (the sturdy Jon Hoche), as soon as they reach California, they’re going to catch a plane to Guam and grab the first boat home to Saigon.
“We don’t belong here,” Quang says. “We belong there. There, we’re heroes. We’re sons. We’re men.” Meanwhile, the friends are stuck in set designer Tim Mackabee’s surreal vision of America, a land of looping ribbons of highways and abundant billboards with nothing behind their facades.
We meet the woman destined to be Quang’s soulmate when Tong (a radiant Jennifer Ikeda) and her quarrelsome mother (Samantha Quan) arrive at the same refugee camp in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, where Quang is quartered. A sun-baked environment of endless empty landscapes (nicely suggested by Justin Townsend’s stark lighting and Jared Mezzocchi’s projections) greet the refugees when they find themselves assigned to bunk beds in Army tents. There’s also nothing to do in these camps, which no doubt explains why Tong invites Quang into her bed the minute she lays eyes on him.
The love story develops along the usual lines, although it’s evident that neither the playwright nor his director want to be considered conventional. One drawback are the songs, set to original music by Shane Rettig, but still obdurately ordinary. The lyrics are anti-poetic in style and only repeat things we already know from the dialogue. But the music is the real flat note, written in a contemporary hip-hop idiom that seems wildly inappropriate for 1975 and totally out of character for this refugee community.
Whatever re-writes Nguyen might have in mind for this play, he’d be wise to start by tossing out the tunes.