From ‘Nam to Rom-Com: ‘Vietgone’ at the ACT

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“ ‘Why is it,’ he said, one time, at the subway entrance, ‘I feel I’ve known you so many years?’
‘Because I like you,’ she said, ‘and I don’t want anything from you.’ ”
– Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

I honestly can’t remember the last a romantic comedy challenged a closely-held world view? The very term is a signifier that the story you’re about to take in is nothing if innocuous. Sure, certain aspects of the story may become cringe-inducing with the passage of time – be it Long Duck Dong from Sixteen Candles or, well, anything from an old black-and-white film – but it’s not often that the creators of these stories set out to make even make you think, let alone be offended.

Still, it’s a bit of a relief when actual ideas do appear. The rom-com genre is so rigid (Meet Cute, romance, break up, Happily Ever After) that focusing on anything more than getting the main couple together is a distraction. The only story that immediately comes to mind for pulling it off is the film The American President, which combined an unapologetically left-leaning sensibility (it was written by Aaron Sorkin and is often jokingly referred to as “the unofficial pilot for The West Wing”) with parallels about the fragile structure of relationships, both political and personal.

The War in Vietnam is widely regarded as the biggest American military fuck-up of the 20th century, if not all of American history. For the US lefties, it’s proof that the military-industrial complex overstepped its bounds, resulting in countless lost lives. For US conservatives, it’s Kennedy’s flaw more than Nixon’s, and would have worked if we’d kept fighting instead of caving in to cowardly “flower children” who “hate freedom”.

Both of those opinions are from people in the US, not Vietnam. It’s easy to take stances when you’re an entire ocean away. “To Vietnamese, the war was not political,” we hear in Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone, “it was real.”

Not exactly the sort of material with which one usually forms the basis of a rom-com, but that’s exactly what Nguyen does. It’s doesn’t completely succeed, but it’s a welcome relief from the usual boy-meets-girl clichés.

Vietgone at ACT - set
Set by Brian Sidney Bembridge. Photo by Me.

Quang loves Vietnam. A native to the country trained in the US Air Force, he’s proud to defend his homeland from the rising VC. But when Saigon falls, he’s forced to leave his wife and two children behind. It’s on an American military base where he meets Tong, a fellow refugee who, with her mother, had to leave family (and Tong’s fiancée) behind for the US.

The two don’t like each other. But why should that get in the way of a good friends-with-benefits relationship? Through music and laughter, we follow their relationship. Neither is quite sure where it will lead, but they’ve each has finally found one thing they truly like about the United States.

But is that enough to keep Quang from going back?

It’s weird being the only one in the world who has never seen or heard anything from Hamilton (and I mean nothing). Yet, through pure cultural osmosis, I’ve gotten an idea as to what the show is like. I bring this up because as I watched Vietgone – with its intentionally anachronistic vernacular and use of hip-hop for it musical sequences – I began to wonder if this was what Hamilton was like. I may never know.

Fortunately, the music is the weakest part of the play. I say “fortunately” because Nguyen’s script actually works really well without them. None of them are bad songs – or maybe “spoken-word poems” would be more accurate – but none of them flow organically with the story. Each time one starts it brings the action to a screeching halt – sometimes literally, with other characters freezing in place so that the actor singing can do their solo number. The songs do provide insight into the characters’ thought processes, but they never move the story or scenes from Point A to Point B.

Otherwise, Nguyen’s script isn’t bad. Loosely based on the courtship of his parents, Nguyen himself has an avatar character known as – what else? – “The Playwright” who bookends the story. Since such tales are always ripe with hyperbole and missing details, Nguyen cranks those details up to “11” and plays the silliness for all its worth. A week of romance between Tong and Quang, despite being in the early ‘70s, includes homages to Say Anything, “Gangham Style”, and Dirty Dancing; a fight scene between Quang and redneck bikers includes ninjas and is set to “Battle without Honour or Humanity” (aka “the Kill Bill song”); and the word “homey” is spoken quite often. Tell me how that’s any sillier than the average Julia Roberts flick?

But keeping the story grounded with the reality of Vietnam related immigration is where the script truly succeeds. Just as Quang left behind his family in Vietnam, so too has Tong left her younger brother and would-be fiancée. Flashbacks illustrate what these folks mean to our couple (though we never see Quang’s family, and I’m conflicted about that) and why they made the choices they did. Quang had no choice in leaving his family, but he faces certain death (if he’s lucky) should he return. Tong’s brother made his own choice and she was only engaged due to societal pressure rather than genuine love. To her, the US represents opportunity; to Quang, both it and Tong are Calypso-like distraction for a would-be Odysseus.

With only five actors in the cast, we meet a great deal of colorful characters. Jenelle Chu and James Seol play our main couple, Tong and Quang. Both are effective in their roles and appear to enjoy themselves, no matter how manic the world around them becomes. Both characters are kept in check by their respective sidekicks: Quang by his US-loving best friend (Stephen Hu) and Tong by her Vietnam-loving mother (Cindy Im). These two, along with actor Jomar Tagatac, make up the play’s ensemble, playing everything from weed-smoking hippies, family in Vietnam, and various gibberish-spouting Americans. In fact, I’d be remiss not to mention the fact that Im and Tagatac last year starred in Crowded Fire’s production of Mia Chung’s You for Me for You, which also illustrated language barriers by having Americans speak in hilarious gibberish. (Incidentally, I saw a Crowded Fire show the night after I saw this one.) As one would expect, playing the ensemble gives Im, Hu, and Tagatac the freedom to have as much fun as they wanted.

As directed by Jaime Castañeda, it technically does well with what appears to be very little. I’m always surprised with how productions manipulate The Strand, the smaller of the ACT’s stages. The Brian Bembridge-designed set for Vietgone consists only of a scaffolding above a wall. That wall rotates into various locations throughout the show, often accompanied by Chris Lundahl’s projections. Wen-Ling Liao’s lights and Jake Rodriguez’s sounds complete the atmospheric effects.

Though the songs drag the narrative, composer Shammy Dee gives them good music. Separate from the show proper, I’d honestly consider buying the soundtrack, if available. As expected, another technical triumph for the ACT.

Vietgone isn’t perfect, but it’s an interesting exercise in merging genres. Life is neither wholly tragic nor comic, so why should every production be one or the other? What’s more, I’m always up for a story with a largely non-White cast and crew. The fact that a human drama can fit so perfectly into a romantic comedy is proof enough that the genre can evolve without doing harm to its normal beats.

GRADE: B

Vietgone is scheduled to run until the 22nd of April at the ACT’s Strand Theater in San Francisco.
The show runs 2 hours and 10min. with a single 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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