One of the first things I wrote down in my little critic notebook was: “This playwright makes his parents masturbate a lot.”
And he certainly does. David Huynh and Meghan Kriedler as Quang and Tong spend a not insignificant amount of time making lewd gestures and noises when not actually simulating sex in a variety of positions. It made me simultaneously grateful that these characters were not based on my parents and that I had not birthed a playwright who would write a sex play about me.
Although, there is a disclaimer. At the top of the show, playwright Qui Nguyen (a current Core Writer at the Playwrights’ Center in reality, but played by Sherwin Resurreccion in this production) makes a point of telling the audience that all characters in this piece are entirely fictional and certainly not based on anyone related to the playwright. But, it’s purposely less than convincing, and the story is all the richer for it.
The playwright also uses this speech to set up the language of the play. The Vietnamese characters speak with the profane bravado of hip hop performers and action stars, while white characters speak in American-sounding gibberish: “Cheeseburger, waffle fries, cholesterol!” It’s a great reversal of the common tropes that Asian characters face in mainstream entertainment. The visibility and representation of Asian characters is a rich topic for activism. Some people have formed coalitions, photoshopped John Cho into movie posters, and written an avalanche of articles. And now, at least one person has written a sassy sex comedy about his parents doin’ it.
The excitement of seeing these characters take full, bold ownership of their story was palpable. At one point, Tong’s mother Huong (a brilliant Sun Mee Chomet, more on her later) pulled open her eyelids to simulate whiteness, a twist on a more familiar playground taunt. There was a full applause break. It felt cathartic to turn the tables.
Nguyen is an avid consumer of pop culture. His Brooklyn company Vampire Cowboys has been called a pioneer of “Geek Theatre” for their science fiction and comic book aesthetic. In Vietgone, Nguyen uses the language of American romantic comedies and action movies and position his refugee parents as the heroes. Vietnamese people are strong and sexy and badass, and the role of the sexless, funny-talking buffoon is filled by white army officer Bobby, played by Resurreccion in a Children of the Corn wig.
A highlight of the piece is an extended sex montage where Tong and Quang fuck their way through the great rom-coms, from Say Anything to Titanic to Sixteen Candles, until a lingering slow dance reveals their connection is more than just physical.
The cast is strong. Flordelino Lagundino is grounded and sincere as both the brother Tong left behind and Quang’s hapless best friend Nahn. Resurreccion makes a meal out of multiple broad roles and some very intense wigs. Hyunh brings swagger, heartbreak, and abs to his role as the playwright’s pilot father. But the women absolutely steal the show. Kriedler is tough and fiercely sensual, pragmatic to the point of coldness. It’s a joy to watch her defenses melt. Chomet gives an operatically physical performance, imbuing even the smallest gesture with specificity as Tong’s formidable mother Huong, who refuses to learn English because it is stupid and turns two forks around to use as chopsticks.
The physicality of the play is really striking. Much of the show takes place on and around a motorcycle, and director Mark Valdez is clear and clever in his staging, using just handlebars and the movements of the actor to create a full scene. The shuffle step as they pull the bike over is perfect.
It wouldn’t be a Qui Nguyen show without a big-ass fight scene and the show delivers, recreating a showdown between Quang and a biker dude with action movie panache. It’s tremendously fun and sexy and smart. It’s especially fun to see such a great cast of local and national Asian American actors kick so much ass so well.
But it’s not just about the ass kicking. As the playwright insisted in his opening speech, this is not a story about war. The true heart of the piece is in the characters and their relationships to one another, whether it is Nahn and Quang’s road trip buddy comedy, or Huong and Tong’s struggle to connect as mother and daughter, or Tong and Quang slowly, reluctantly falling in love. Even in the midst of torrid sex and biker brawls, the small, delicate moments of human connection land.
A question I always ask myself as an audience member is why the artists choose to tell this story now. In a surprisingly graceful coda, we see the playwright interview his father in the present day and that question is answered with absolute clarity. Vietgone may be littered with dick jokes and bodily fluids and lots and lots of fucking, but this truly is a love story, not just for Tong and Quang, but for the playwright and his parents.
As Nahn would say, it’s so beautiful, it’s as if God painted it…with his dick.