In the classic Broadway musical “Cabaret,” a mysterious and mischievous Emcee chats up the audience and seduces it with nightclub entertainment while Hitler and the Nazis take over Germany. In “Cambodian Rock Band,” Lauren Yee’s overstuffed but exciting play with music, a similar figure does essentially the same thing while Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge take over Cambodia.
Yee may be the least-known best-known American playwright for New York theatergoers. Until now, her New York credits consisted of just two little-remembered Off-Broadway productions in 2013 and 2014. Yet two of her plays – “Cambodian Rock Band” and “The Great Leap” – were among the 10 most-produced plays of the 2019-20 season by professional American theaters. Yee was the only playwright to have more than one play on the list. She was also the only Asian-American writer on the list.
Following its world premiere in Costa Mesa and subsequent productions in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Ashland, Lowell and San Diego, “Cambodian Rock Band” is finally getting seen in New York, with a vibrant staging produced by the Signature Theatre Company and directed by Chay Yew.
The play begins with a surf rock band (made up of most of the six-member cast, in fashionable 1970s attire) performing songs by Dengue Fever, followed by some eerily giddy narration by the terrific Francis Jue (“Soft Power,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie”). Referring to Cambodia as “the Detroit of Southeast Asia,” he suggests that the play will deal with Cambodia both in the late 1970s (during Pol Pot’s genocidal reign) and a few decades later.
It is 2008 and Neary (Courtney Reed), who is 26 years old and Cambodian-American, is working with the International Center for Transitional Justice in an attempt to prosecute Duch (Jue), the former warden of a deadly Khmer Rouge prison. In walks her out of-place father Chum (the versatile Joe Ngo), who is returning to Cambodia for the first time in three decades and seems particularly excited about checking out a local “fish spa.”
Chum’s many attempts to discourage Neary from pursuing Duch lead to a surprise revelation, which in turn leads to lengthy flashbacks depicting Chum’s life in Cambodia before the arrival of the Khmer Rouge (playing guitar in the rock band seen earlier) and three years later (being subjected to physical torture in prison). A reconciliation between father and daughter inevitably follows, plus a feel-good finale by the band.
The play takes on so many different tones and guises (family sitcom, “Law & Order,” prison drama, history lesson, rock concert, mystery thriller) that it ends up feeling overstuffed and overlong. Nevertheless, many of the scenes are quite moving, and Yee delves into many areas of serious discussion including international relations, national identity, justice and the role of the artist in an authoritarian regime.
“Cambodian Rock Band” runs through March 22 at the Pershing Signature Center. 480 W. 42nd St., signaturetheatre.org.