Granted, “Colonialism Is Terrible, But Pho Is Delicious,” the name of Aurora Theatre Company’s world-premiere comedy, is a mouthful. Happily, the show, which opened Thursday in Berkeley, is as tasty as the title.
Four appealing, nimble actors appear in the cleverly structured, three-section play, which spans decades and geography: from late 19th century French Indochine to Ho Chi Minh City roughly 100 years later, 1999, to present-day Brooklyn.
Tackling cultural appropriation and inspired by two controversial viral videos – in which white men offer explanations on improving the Vietnamese soup (pho) and Korean rice dish (bibimbap) – playwright Dustin Chinn amusingly contrasts changing attitudes of cooks and diners through the years.
In the first scene of the brisk 90-minute play, the haughty Madame Gagnier (Elissa Beth Stebbins) instructs her white French chef Guillaume (Joseph Patrick O’Malley) to school Asian cook Thuy (Nicole Tung) in making a proper pot-au-feu, beef vegetable stew, while household servant Nguyen (Anthony Doan) facilitates the exchange.
In the next scene, the skeptical Mui (Tung), who runs a popular pho eatery in the former Saigon, humors her entrepreneurial brother Quang (Doan) when – while Bill Clinton’s in town! – he brings two clueless Americans (O’Malley, Stebbins) who are about to open a Burger King to taste her “exotic” soup.
Nicole Tung plays a diner in a trendy contemporary restaurant having trouble with the server (Anthony Doan, left) and chef (Joseph Patrick O’Malley). (Photo by Kevin Berne)
The final scene takes place in a trendy Brooklyn restaurant where Asian, Vietnamese-speaking Danielle (Tung), dining with her equally foodie pal Julie (Stebbins), takes great offense when the snooty server/manager (Doan) and white chef (O’Malley) refuse to provide her with hoisin sauce, insisting that it would ruin the purity of the exquisitely unique pho they ordered. Their back-and-forth is hilarious – and not unfamiliar!
Director Oanh Nguyen (writer Chinn has fun with the white folks’ bad pronunciation of “Nguyen” in the opening scene) beautifully orchestrates the versatile actors through the various eras and places, while scene designer Mikiko Uesugi’s simple yet sophisticated sets nicely evoke the changes times and locales.
All this show needs to take it over the top (COVID and mask-wearing notwithstanding) is the introduction of real-life culinary delicacies to add smell to the sensual delights it offers.
“Colonialism Is Terrible, But Pho Is Delicious” runs through Dec. 4 at Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. The show also streams starting Nov. 29. Tickets are $20-$75. Call 510-843-4882 or visit auroratheatre.org.