“Vietgone,” now playing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is a lively new comedy about Vietnamese refugees creating their version of an American life from scratch.
This irreverent play by Qui Nguyen, smartly directed by May Adrales, can unloose raucous laughter and then turn on a dime and sock you with the pain and loss suffered by the refugees.
Nguyen sets his play mostly in 1975, when his parents came separately to the U.S. and met in a refugee camp in Arkansas.
His father Quang was a South Vietnamese helicopter pilot during the war. As played by the irresistible James Ryen, he’s so hunky you’d expect to see him on the cover of a romance novel.
Tong, Nguyen’s mother, in a sparkling portrayal by Jeeni Yi, is smart, sexy and independent. When Tong and Quang fall in lust, and then in love, he wants to return to Vietnam, where he would surely be killed, but she wants to be a new person in America. He’s trying to go back in time while she’s moving forward.
The plotting is somewhat contrived, but the characters are so engaging that sitcom tendencies are easily forgiven.
Nguyen has chosen to write dialogue as it is spoken today, helping us identify with these frustrated characters. That includes sadly revealing hip hop poetry and the F word in endlessly inventive configurations.
When Americans in the play try to speak Vietnamese, the words come out in a funny jumble. When they speak English, if the Vietnamese don’t understand, they hear a string of words like “Big Mac McDonald’s Budweiser Chevron.”
The best writing comes at the end, taking place in the present, when Quang jokes with his adult son that Harrison Ford should play him in a movie. White people love to play Asians, he says. And then, Quang opens his heart and reveals his hidden self. What an invaluable gift.