By: Qui Nguyen
At: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct., Glencoe. Tickets: 847-242-6000 or WritersTheatre.org; $33-$60. Runs through: Sept. 23
Director Lavina Jadhwani and playwright Qui Nguyen are a formidable team. The sum of their effortsWriters Theatre's production of Nguyen's Vietgoneis a wildly entertaining, genre-busting epic. The saga of an unlikely road trip and an unlikely courtship, it's also a war story that breaks with trope and stereotype. May that breakage never be repaired.
As the action moves from Vietnam to a U.S. refugee camp to a cross-country motorcycle journey, the production is illuminating, thrilling, funny, harrowing, tragic, joyful and audaciously sex-positive. The courtship of Tong ( Aurora Adachi-Winter ) and Quang ( Matthew C. Yee ) is a rom-com that's smart, cutting and a million miles away from the saccharine dreck rom-coms usually traffic in.
Nguyen's dialogue is propelled by urgency and admirably creative profanities. It's peppered by expertly deployed hip-hop, a verbal fusillade overseen by music director and composer Gabriel Ruiz. Yee and Adachi-Winter turn words into projectiles, fired with the fervor of a thousand suns.
Finding refuge ( sort of ) in a refugee camp in the American South, Quang's heroic attempts to get back to his wife and children in Vietnam and his slowly blooming relationship with the strong-willed Tong comprise the bulk of Vietgone's fast-moving plot.
As the action unfolds, Nguyen skewers stereotypes and mines pop culture. There are references to everything from Mickey Rooney in yellowface to Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing to any actress who has ever played a delicate Asian flower a la Madame Butterfly.
Nguyen's humor crops up in unexpected places. Take, for example, a scene where full-on ninjas go ballistic while a gas station explodes in a firestorm. You'll want to memorize the moment Quang nonchalantly walks away from an inferno behind him ( crucially, not even bothering to look back ). File the image in your mind. You'll want to refer back to it on those days when your own world seems in flames.
Jadhwani's cast is flawless. As Tung, Adachi-Winter isas her character notesthe exact opposite of your typical Asian woman stereotype. Yee's Quang is a propulsive package of effortless sex appeal, understated charisma and bone-deep loyalty. He's simultaneously marvelously and a winning mashup of James Dean, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan to Bradley Cooper.
As Quang's ride-or-die buddy ( among other roles ), Rammel Chan is the best friend everybody needs. He's riding 'bitch" on Quang's motorcycle for much of the production, but he's nobody's sidekick.
Alongside the sheer entertainment value of Vietgone, there's a history lesson that millions would do well to hear. In the final scene, we see Quang being interviewed by his adult son. Quang's words illustrate how hard it is to understand war from a distance of half a century and thousands of miles. It's fascinating and moving, and a side of history that's not usually taught.