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For nearly three decades, the theatrical symbol for the Vietnam War has been a whirling monster of a prop helicopter, hovering over the stage in the blockbuster musical Miss Saigon.
No one who sees playwright Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone at Studio Theatre will ever again think of that whirlybird without also remembering a broken black umbrella, twirled above the heads of actors as their characters are airlifted out of South Vietnam’s capital. With the help of director Natsu Onada Power, Nyugen is making theatergoers rethink every melodramatic rumble-in-the-jungle take on Vietnam that they’ve ever seen.
Vietgone initially lifted off at California’s South Coast Repertory, and was deemed the best new play of 2015 by the American Theatre Critics Association. A 2016 staging at Manhattan Theatre Club was well received, but when a possible Broadway transfer didn’t pan out, regional performances began in April 2017. It’s slightly surprising that it took a year for the show to arrive in D.C., and that Studio snagged the D.C. premiere. This is a Woolly Mammoth sort of show, full of sex, profanity, and metanarratives. (Leave the kids—and your parents—at home.) But with one notable exception, Studio Theatre has done very, very well by Vietgone.
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Power, a Japanese director who is among D.C.’s best, is also among the best directors in the country to pair with Nguyen’s pop culture aesthetic. The set is surrounded by honky- tonk Americana, and the story begins in a similar vein as a seminal Asian-American play that Power directed for Theater J a few years back; just as an actor portrays playwright David Henry Hwang in Yellow Face, actor Jacob Yeh introduces himself as Qui Nguyen at the opening of Vietgone. “Any resemblance to real life characters is purely coincidental,” he says.
Which is a joke, because he also says the play may be about his parents.
The action quickly careens back to 1975, when Quang (Marc delaCruz), a pilot for South Vietnam, and Tong (Regina Aquino), an embassy worker, are both attempting to get their families out of Saigon. The chronology of these rapid-fire scenes is slightly tough to follow, so do NOT drink too many Ho Chi Minnie Mouse cocktails from the onstage bar or you’ll miss the helicopter and end up at the Hanoi Hilton.
Both main characters touch down at a refugee camp in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, Quang with his neurotic best friend Nhan (Joe Ngo) and Tong accompanied by her busybody mother (Eileen Rivera). All the actors are funny, and obviously having fun, but it’s Yeh who rounds out the cast by playing a series of supporting characters, and makes a case for himself as the best comic actor in Washington.
“You love princess awesome happy?” Yeh says, when portraying a GI stricken with puppy love for Tong. To replicate the confusion refugees feel, Americans speak in waves of amusing gibberish, while the Vietnamese characters banter at Gilmore Girl pace, and, in the case of Tong and her mother, with a similar frenemy spirit.
“You are not at death’s door, Mother,” Tong says when Rivera’s character grouses about conditions at the camp. “You’re not even at death’s driveway.”
Although Quang provides a welcome distraction from her homesick mother, Tong is no delicate flower in love, singing sappy songs about solo saxophones. “You wanna do it?” she asks, moments after meeting the pilot, and she casually tosses her underwear on a bunk bed. Minutes later she belts out a line that directly contrasts her character with Kim, the virginal prostitute in Miss Saigon.
“Love is a bullshit story,” Aquino sings in one of six musical numbers written for the Studio production. “Call me a whore and I’ll show you the door.”
Composer Jeff Song, in collaboration with members of his onstage band, reworked the play’s original hip-hop passages into songs inspired by pop music from the ’70s. Nguyen may have approved the concept, but the execution comes up short. Most lyrics are more banal than the dialogue and the vocal arrangements hardly flatter the actors onstage.
Far more successful is the underscoring music and clever interactions Power devised for her performers, like when Song provides a cowbell to jolt Tong from an after-sex nap, or when percussionist Keith Butler Jr. punctuates an elaborate martial arts battle with cymbals.
Great fight scenes were also crucial to Rorschach Theatre’s 2014 staging of She Kills Monsters, the only other Nyugen play to get an airing in D.C. He’s now penning CGI battles for Marvel Studios, and presumably spending less time on plays. Poor Yella Rednecks, a sequel to Vietgone, just got a reading at South Coast Rep last month, and although a spokesman for Studio confirmed that the theater has commissioned a new play from Nguyen, it’s not on the docket for the 2018–2019 season.
Hopefully that script is still is still in the works. Nguyen deserves all the money he can get from writing about superheroes. But he’s also a hero for theatergoers, for rescuing us from the dreck of Miss Saigon.
At Studio Theatre to May 20. 1501 14th St. NW. $20–$76. (202) 332-3300. studiotheatre.org.