|POOR YELLA REDNECKS|
Amidst all the talk of cheeseburgers, pizza burgers, and Burger King in Qui Nguyen’s “Poor Yella Rednecks,” now getting its New York premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club Stage 1, I was just getting hungry for a plain old hamburger -- hold the pickles, hold the lettuce.
Okay, I may be stretching the metaphor a bit, but, at least for my taste, Nguyen’s autobiographical dramedy about Vietnamese immigrants trying to make it in 1980s America is so full of garnishes and embellishments – especially in May Andrales’ inventive production – that one can sometimes barely taste the meat of this often-heartbreaking, needs-to- be-told-story. Still, if a Big Mac is your thing, have I got a show for you!
As anyone who saw the show’s prequel “Vietgone” already knows, Nguyen isn’t interested in a traditional “well-made play.” And if you weren’t aware of his predilection, you’ll figure it out in minutes. The show begins as Nguyen (as played by Jon Norman Schneider) introduces himself to us, starting that this play will be 100 percent historically accurate – at least as told to him by his mother. Seconds later, Nguyen will be sitting with a laptop (in 2016) asking his elderly mother Tong (the superb Maureen Sebastian) to recall her past –which she will do reluctantly – for the sake of her grandchildren.
And then voila, Tong takes off her shawl (shades of “Pippin”) and we are immediately in El Dorado, Arkansas in the mid-70s – a small, impoverished town brought to gleaming life in an overly elaborate set by Tim Mackabee, dominated by the word YELLA spelled out in giant yellow letters, and augmented by Lap Chi Chu’s vivid lighting design and Jared Mezzochi’s superb production design.
Here, we resume the story of “Vietgone” in which Tong has jilted her goofy boyfriend Bobby to hook up with sweet-natured, super-hunky boyfriend Quang (a highly affecting Ben Levin), whom she has met in a local refugee camp.
Their connection is palpable, but it becomes apparent (or does it?) that love can’t conquer all: Quang still has a wife and kids he left back in Vietnam; the couple’s lack of fluency in English (although it sounds perfect to us, but clearly isn’t) is hindering their chances of getting decent jobs; Tong’s well-meaning but obstinate mother (an excellent Samantha Quan) often does more harm than good; and, above all, the couple’s Spider Man-loving son “Little Man” (portrayed by a giant puppet, voiced by Schneider) is being bullied because of his differences, both in the language he speaks and the way he looks. Still, we root for the happy ending.
This may all sound mostly straightforward, but Nguyen and Andrales refuse to take the straight and narrow path. Indeed, their yellow brick road zig-zags, with characters breaking out, almost randomly, in rap songs (the music is by Shane Rettig) to express their emotions; a couple of visually-oriented scenes set to popular music (notably Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and Dolly Parton’s (“9 to 5”); and the recurring appearance of Quang’s positive if clear-eyed best friend Nhan (a highly amusing Jon Hoche) and the too-sweet, too-goofy Bobby (an impressive Paco Tolson), who speaks in almost indecipherable patois.
Whether “Poor Yella Rednecks” comes off as a work where everyone involved (including the audience) has bitten off more than they can chew or as a fully satisfying meal definitely depends on your appetite for unconventional theater. Either way, it’s a rich meal worth digesting.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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