There is certainly no shortage of stories attempting to capture the Vietnam War: books, documentaries, feature films (“Coming Home,’’ “Platoon,’’ “The Deer Hunter,’’ “Born on the Fourth of July,’’ “Apocalypse Now’’), plays (such as David Rabe’s trilogy — “Streamers,’’ “Sticks and Bones,’’ and “The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel’’), and even a handful of musicals (“Hair,’’ “Miss Saigon’’).
However, their principal concern and dramatic subject have almost invariably been the impact of the war on Americans. What playwright Qui Nguyen offers in “Vietgone’’ is a welcome shift in perspective. He seeks to tell the story of the Vietnamese people — more precisely, the story of Vietnamese refugees who were resettled in the United States; even more precisely, the story of his own parents.
The freewheeling style Nguyen employs to tell that story comes across as overly gimmicky for the scattershot, self-indulgent first half of “Vietgone,’’ which is directed by Michelle Aguillon and presented by Company One Theatre in partnership with the Chinatown-based Pao Arts Center. But “Vietgone’’ does eventually win you over, or at least it did me, as the production’s focus tightens on the intricate pas de deux between refugees Quang (Quentin Nguyen-duy) and Tong (Christina Mei Chen).
After they meet in 1975 at a refugee camp established on a military base in Arkansas, the relationship between Quang and Tong progresses from uncomplicated lust to complicated love, and they have to figure out what they mean to each other while coping with the dislocating effects of life in a new land. There’s a palpable chemistry between Nguyen-duy (a junior at BU’s School of Theatre) and Chen that raises the stakes of the play and proves crucial to the overall success of “Vietgone.’’
Playwright Nguyen’s table-turning authorial technique is to have white characters such as an American soldier at the camp speak in the kind of linguistic stereotypes Asian characters have long been saddled with (“Me am name Bobby,’’ and so on). Meanwhile, the Vietnamese characters talk in deliberately anachronistic contemporary slang (“peeps,’’ “dude,’’ “This is really messed up,’’ etc.), complete with rap soliloquies such as one delivered by Tong that frames the sort of anxieties that generations of immigrants have grappled with, with an element specific to human reminders of a hugely unpopular war: “We get to America by any desperate means/ Cause they say they’ll take the poor and the weak/ But does that go for refugees that look like me/ Peeps reminding them of their enemy?’’
Yet on balance Tong adjusts pretty smoothly to life in America. She is assertive and independent-minded in her dealings with Quang and with her meddlesome mother, Huong (Kim Klasner). For his part, Quang, a former captain in the South Vietnamese air force, is wracked by a yearning to return to Vietnam, where the chaotic circumstances of the fall of Saigon resulted in his wife and two young children being left behind. In concert with his buddy, Nhan (Rob Chen), he embarks on a quixotic “Easy Rider’’-style motorcycle journey, pursuing his vision of a grand return to his homeland.
As “Vietgone’’ proceeds, it becomes clear that playwright Nguyen is better at developing primary characters than secondary ones. Quang’s needy, clinging boyfriend in the Vietnam scenes (played by Jude Torres) is an irritant, and so are a couple of clichéd hippie characters who spout simplistic antiwar views, though their appearances are blessedly brief. (It’s interesting to note that “Vietgone’’ takes a less cynical view of US involvement in Vietnam than have many works, with Nguyen seeming to detect idealism in the motives behind that involvement.) Worst of all is Huong, Tong’s mother. Not since Vicki Lawrence on the 1980s TV sitcom “Mama’s Family’’ has there been a more gratingly unfunny maternal presence than Huong.
But Nguyen’s powers of invention seldom flag, and his distinctive voice starts to yield more dividends as “Vietgone’’ proceeds, especially because director Aguillon is clearly on his wavelength. She sustains a high-spirited atmosphere that is highlighted by one of the funniest fight sequences I’ve ever seen onstage. (The sequence was devised by choreographer Misha Shields and Aguillon, according to a Company One spokesman.)
What ultimately makes “Vietgone’’ resonate, though, is that ingredient common to most successful love stories: In Quang and Tong, Nguyen has created a duo to root for.
Play by Qui Nguyen. Directed by Michelle Aguillon. Presented by Company One Theatre in partnership with Pao Arts Center. At Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through May 25. 617-933-8600, www.companyone.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin