nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 5, 2011
When I was growing up in suburban Washington DC in the 1970s, I got to know a few kids whose families had emigrated to the United States from Southeast Asia—I remember in particular a family from Cambodia (who left their home country before the time of Pol Pot) and another who were political refugees from what was then called Burma. But I didn't know any Asian children who were adopted by non-Asian parents; looking back, remembering how tough it was for the Asian kids I did know to try to fit in with their Caucasian and African American peers, I realize that it must have been a thousand times tougher for the ones who were orphans, like the children "baby lifted" from Vietnam after the victory of the Viet Cong.
All of which is a way into my evening at Monster, a new play by Derek Nguyen that has just opened at Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, that invaluable bastion of new and diverse work reflecting all kinds of Asian and Asian American experiences. Nguyen tells us in a program note that he is "a Vietnamese refugee during the Fall of Saigon in 1975 and a self-identified Asian American." This play is an exploration of what his history feels like and means; for someone like myself who was only barely touched by it, it's fascinating and revelatory.
Monster spins two concurrent tales, both of Vietnamese adopted into Caucasian American families. One of them is Tang Tran, our protagonist and narrator, a private detective who has just separated from his (white) wife Molly following the tragic loss of their baby. Tran's case is the second story in Monster, that of a 15-year-old boy named Jonny Bonnard who has run away from his adoptive mother after possibly being involved in the brutal beating of another Vietnamese boy at school. Tran's efforts to unravel the mystery surrounding Jonny's actions and disappearance takes him from the boy's mother in California to his father in Massachusetts, with a side trip to North Carolina, where he visits the agency that handled Jonny's adoption.
It's a compelling and gripping ride, and the author provides lots of verisimilitudinous detail along with some genuine surprises along the way. He succeeds admirably in letting the audience begin to understand some of his refugee Vietnamese experience. What's it like to grow up without knowing anything about your ancestors or your culture? How does it feel to look so different from your parents? What animosities would develop between an immigrant who came to this country with his family and another who journeyed here alone as a baby to be delivered to a pair of strange Americans?
Nguyen's puzzle of a play isn't quite as neat as it could be: some of the details don't quite add up and some feel too written. It also is a bit too serious: there's only one scene—where Tran meets with Ms. Washington, the records administrator at the adoption agency—that contains any humor or real joy; it's the only place where the audience can relieve some of its pent-up tension. But overall Monster is a riveting and significant work, particularly for revealing so much about a specific kind of immigrant experience that, so far, I can honestly say I've not been exposed to in any work of culture or art.
Pan Asian's production is directed by Kaipo Schwab, and presented on a simple, effective set by Gian Marco Lo Forte, with fine, evocative lighting provided by Jiyoun Chang. Rocco D'Santi's video projections are used sparingly but successfully to define locale. A cast of eight portray the play's many characters, with Tonia Jackson the particular standout as the buttoned-up guidance counselor at Jonny's school and (especially) the life-affirming Ms. Washington.
With last month's We Are, Monster is part of Pan Asian's current season's look at the Vietnam War and its aftermath. Bravo to Tisa Chang, Pan Asian's artistic producing director, and her colleagues in this worthy company for offering us glimpses into lives and cultures that are too seldom brought to the American stage.