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‘Vietgone’ a funny, touching immigrant experience tale

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James Seol, front, and Stephen Hu play pals who go on a cross-country motorcycle trip “Vietgone.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

Immigration is such a hot-button issue these days, it’s hard to find a play that doesn’t address it as anything but tragic.

But Qui Nguyen’s “Vietgone,” which opened Thursday at the Strand Theater in a new American Conservatory Theater production, is a rare exception.

In mining the story of his parents, who fled their homeland for the U.S. after the Vietnam War, the playwright delivers a funny, freewheeling and eminently theatrical show.

Nguyen, who honed his “geek theater” chops with the New York-based theater company Vampire Cowboys, gives the play a sturdy comic framework, referencing classic films, sitcoms and vaudevillian shtick. Road trips, fractured language, rom-com dance scenes, rap interludes (the score is fabulous) and a brief episode of kung-fu fighting propel the action forward.

Yet “Vietgone” is also a serious and heartfelt play.

The plot centers on the Vietnamese pilot Quang (a dashing James Seol) and the beautiful, sharp-tongued Tong (a spirited Jenelle Chu.)

Languishing in a bleak Arkansas refugee camp, their first meeting sparks an instant mutual attraction. But it’s complicated: Quang’s married, to a woman back home, and Tong’s accompanied by her mother (Cindy Im), who refuses to learn English and announces her intention to return to Vietnam at the first opportunity.

And then there’s Tong’s American suitor, Bobby (Jomar Tagatac), whose hilarious attempts at courtship underscore the language barrier handicapping them all.

It’s left to Quang’s stoner pal Nhan (an amiable Stephen Hu) to supply a crucial moment of clarity.

Setting off from Arkansas on a second-hand motorcycle, the two men head for the California coast, where Quang hopes to catch a flight back to Vietnam and re-unite with the wife and children he left behind. Of course, that doesn’t happen — or the Playwright never would have been born to tell his parents’ story.

With Im, Hu and Tagatac excelling in supporting roles, it’s a fast-paced show, and director Jaime Castañeda keeps it firing on all cylinders.

Brian Sidney Bembridge’s split-level set, Wen-Ling Liao’s lighting, Chris Lundahl’s projections, Jessie Amoroso’s 1970s-era costumes, Jake Rodriguez’s sound designs and Shemmy Dee’s groovy score all play essential parts.

So does the Playwright — not Nguyen himself, but Tagatac playing him, both in the opening scene, and in a brief coda set forty years later in the now-elderly Quang’s apartment.

As father and son meet to revisit the war, “Vietgone” reminds us that, for many Vietnamese who came to America, going home was never really an option.

REVIEW
Vietgone
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., S.F.
When: Tuesdays through Sundays; extended through April 29
Tickets: $25 to $90
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org

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