'Monster' Claws at Identity and Violence

April 8, 2011

"Monster," a play by Derek Nguyen, put on by the Pan Asian Repertory, is now at the West End Theatre in New York City through April 17.

For Detective Tran, truth is subjective. By the end of Derek Nguyen's play, "Monster," we will understand what he means all too well. 

The play starts off like any other whodunit. Indeed, "Monster" gives off shades of "Law and Order" for most of the first act. Tang Tran is a private detective, hired by a woman to find her missing, adopted teenaged son, Jonny Bonnard, a Vietnamese orphan from Operation Babylift. As we delve into the town's background, evidence of racially motivated strife crops up and Tran runs up against tight-lipped students and school administrators. In a telling wrinkle, Tran himself is a also a Vietnamese adoptee from the same airlift. While this should be a big enough clue for Tran that maybe he should sit this one out, he dutifully, then obsessively, ignores it in search of the truth. 

The action starts off in the desert community where Jonny lives, so you know things are sure to get pretty surreal, pretty fast. Verisimilitude is not playwright Derek Nguyen's strong point, so in fact these patches of surrealism, which become increasingly bizarre and unsettling as the play progresses, are interesting breaks from the sometimes pedantic exposition during Tran's numerous interviews. 

As the play progresses we find that, in fact, the race problems at Bonnard's school weren't so simple as (ahem) black and white. Bonnard, perhaps attempting to align himself with his adopted country, is hinted as being the instigator of much of the racial violence, directly mainly at newly arrived Vietnamese immigrant Khoi. Tran, by now beginning to feel the stress of the investigation coupled with his own problems with an estranged wife (he's a private detective; of COURSE he has an estranged wife), traverses the country in search of answers but, in a twist, finds a daunting conclusion.

What starts as a police procedural really becomes a character study of Detective Tran, Jonny Bonnard, and the Vietnamese condition as a whole. 

"I really wanted to create a compelling character,"said Nguyen by phone, "one who had committed a violent crime, but that the audience would empathize with. It's only by understanding a person's motivation that we can move forward."

Indeed, Nguyen began writing "Monster" around the time of the Columbine Massacre and 25th Anniversary of the Fall of Saigon. That these two seemingly totally disparate events could inform a single piece speaks to the complexity that is the Vietnamese American experience. Nguyen, as a "boat person" from the losing side of the war, on the side aligned with an foreign interloper, asks hard questions: What does it mean to be Vietnamese, and to be a "winner" if winning requires an atrocious act of violence with long, unforeseen aftereffects?  

Nguyen goes at his subjects -- racial identity, belonging, violence, innocence and guilt -- with a fine but verbose tool. Most of the action has already occurred by the time Tran is on the case, so we hear of, rather than see, most of the developments. But Nguyen's goal was perhaps not to give us a true crime thriller, but to expunge and explore the complex interactions of race, guilt, and violence. 

The immigrant Khoi, being interviewed by Tran while in a wheelchair and badly mangled from a confrontation at school, laments that Vietnamese are always, always fighting. It is a sentiment with which many, many Vietnamese will grudgingly, perhaps stoically, agree. 

"Monster" may bite off more than it can chew at points, and the audience may be thrown off by what appears to be a crime drama without the usual quick pacing, but Nguyen touches nerves and "Monster"'s ambiguous ending leaves a space that we ultimately fill with our own darkness.



Mic Nguyen

social media editor & blogger

Michael D. Nguyen is a writer who grew up and went to school in California and now lives in NYC. When he's not
internet shopping, he works in advertising. Follow him @mic_nguyen