Playwright Qui Nguyen and director Robert Ross Parker, his regular creative partner, have graduated to a more prestigious address. Their latest show, presented by Ma-Yi Theater Company in association with Nguyen and Parker's Vampire Cowboys group, is at Theatre Row, and I haven't laughed so hard in a long time.
The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G has plenty of the comic book and video game culture that has dominated Nguyen's earlier works like Soul Samurai and Alice in Slasherland – opening, for example, with a clever and smoothly staged version of an old-time video arcade duck-shooting game – but this time, the colorful theatrical language serves a deeper theme.
Nguyen wants to tell the story of his cousin's traumatic 1988 escape from Vietnam via boat, losing his family and barely surviving en route to safety. But the play is just as much about the writer's search for an appropriate way to tell the tale. Theater doesn't get more self-referential than this, in fact. The cousin, Hung, is played with energetic mugging by the obviously non-Vietnamese Neimah Djourabchi, while the African-American actor Temar Underwood with affecting naturalness plays the frustrated playwright himself.
This "Nguyen" pops in and out, interacting mid-scene with his characters, arguing with his girlfriend, and bewailing his unhelpful theatrical education. There's a memorable scene in which he's hectored by writing instructors to modify his storytelling in ways that don't feel right to him ("Make it more Asian!") and another in which the cast lines up to shout out bad reviews of earlier work. These, like other scenes, are screamingly funny, while at the same time they make a point. (Although for a moment I was tempted to suggest that Nguyen conceived the play in this way so that we'd finally know how to pronounce his name: it's "kwee gwin," more or less.)