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Review: Echoes of war resound in 'Christmas in Hanoi'

February 18, 2013|By F. Kathleen Foley
  • Elizabeth Liang, left, and Elyse Dinh in "Christmas in Hanoi," an East West Players production at the David Henry Hwang Theater.
Elizabeth Liang, left, and Elyse Dinh in "Christmas in Hanoi,"… (Michael Lamont )

With a Vietnamese mother and an Irish American father, Eddie Borey has firsthand experience of what it's like to straddle two diverse cultures. In his world-premiere play “Christmas in Hanoi,” an East West Players production at the David Henry Hwang Theater, Borey exploits that intensely personal experience in an intriguing drama that may not pay off all its plot points but is nonetheless rich with emotion and mystery. 

The play's tightly knit family ensemble includes the grandfather, George (Long Nguyen), who fled his native Vietnam with his daughter, Oanh (Elyse Dinh), a Vietnamese translator, and her husband, American CIA officer Philip Ganley (Michael Krawic).

Oanh's and Philip's daughter, American-born Winnie (Elizabeth Liang), a controlling anesthesiologist, has always felt overshadowed by her younger brother, Lou (Joseph Daugherty), a freewheeling surfer dude turned acupuncturist.

Oanh died a year ago, but her ghost is still very present, although unable, as yet, to tear the thin veil separating her from her loved ones. When George and Philip insist on going to Vietnam, ostensibly to honor Oanh, Winnie suspects a more pressing purpose – and her fears prove hauntingly accurate.

Borey's is very much a family drama, but echoes of the catastrophic “American War,” as it is known in Vietnam, reverberate. Spirits of Vietnamese war dead – “angry ghosts” deprived of ritual and resting places – drift around the play's periphery. And when those angry ghosts fix their fury in the person of Philip, creepy events unfold. 

Director Jeff Liu has assembled an engaging cast that does full honor to Borey's colorful characters, although he does need to address Nguyen's and Liang's occasional inaudibility – especially noticeable considering the stentorian crispness of the other actors.

Otherwise, Liu's staging is effectively light-handed, with flashes of humor that better illuminate the play's grimmer themes. Francois-Pierre Couture's set, with its overarching canopy of timber bamboo, is simple and versatile, and Jeremy Pivnick's lighting, coupled with John Zalewski's virtuosic sound design, takes us on a journey from sun-drenched noontime to supernatural netherworld. 

Ultimately, instead of solving the mystery he has painstakingly set up, Borey settles for a sweeping indictment of generalized American culpability. By revisiting the obvious, Borey shortchanges the specific – namely, the particular flaw that plunged the Ganley family into horror. It's a too-easy resolution for an otherwise challenging and cathartic evening. 

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“Christmas in Hanoi,” David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 10. $26-$36. (213) 625-7000. www.eastwestplayers.org. Running time: 2 hours.

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