The Headlands, on stage in its world premiere at LCT3, unspools with the familiar rhythms of a detective story. An obsessive sleuth homes in on a crime, mistrusts the accepted narrative, and sets out to correct the record, finding clues hidden in plain sight that others might ignore.
Playwright Christopher Chen marries noirish tropes to the contemporary podcast generation: Think Vertigo meets Serial. If his only intention was to supply a rippingly good murder mystery, he would have succeeded with flying colors.
Make no mistake: The play does work, sui generis, as a stylish, engaging piece of stage noir. Knud Adams’ handsome production — with atmospheric lighting (by Mark Barton) and penetrating projections (by Ruey Horng Sun) that alternately illuminate and obfuscate Kimie Nishikawa’s gray-walled bare set — had me hanging on every twist and turn of the strikingly complex plot. But Chen is an inventive playwright whose stories unfurl, often simultaneously, on multiple levels, and The Headlands is no exception. He draws the viewer in through the recognizable frame, then quietly spins out strands of subtext that force you to consider questions of family, community, identity, trust, and truth.
Chen’s brilliant 2014 play Caught also asked its audience to wrestle with the shaky overlap of truth and fiction, so it’s not surprising he’d be drawn to true-crime, where seemingly impartial facts and constructed narratives converge. Henry (Aaron Yoo), a self-described connoisseur of the genre, obsesses over the one mystery he feels sure he can solve: The murder of his father, George (a quietly haunting Johnny Wu), at the family’s home in San Francisco’s Sunset District twenty years earlier.
Red herrings abound, involving Henry’s mother Leena (the always fascinating Mia Katigbak); George’s business partner, Walter (Henry Stram); the detective who originally handled the case (Stram again, relishing a gruff stereotype); and a mysterious young man, Tom (Edward Chin-Lyn), who seems to exist on the fringes of the family’s orbit.
Rest assured that very little will come together as expected — which, given the type of tale being told, is to be expected. Yet, as Chen piles up the building blocks for a satisfying (and surprisingly touching) resolution that comes late in the play, he also sharply considers the elements that underlie any good, suspenseful story. The procedural structure is undeniably important to any successful mystery — collecting clues and arranging them, jigsaw-like, until the pieces spell out the picture — but the really memorable ones also engage with the emotions of the people at the heart of the investigation. In The Headlands, we care about every person of interest as much as what they contribute to the ultimate conclusion.
Chen handles the initial courtship of George and Leena (played as a younger woman by Laura Kai Chen) with a lovely tenderness. He also presents Henry as more than a tunnel-visioned neurotic — his personal connection to the case he’s exploring makes him more sympathetic, given his own skin in the game. Yoo, who dominates the proceedings and barely leaves the stage over the production’s ninety intermission-less minutes, presents Henry as affable and kindhearted, warm toward his girlfriend Jess (a vibrant Mahira Kakkar) and his elderly mom, but with a current of darkness flickering just below the surface. It’s not a violent darkness — that would be too predictable — but rather a suggestion of the emptiness that exists when a fundamental part of your personal history remains obfuscated.
In addition to Chen’s tight, thoughtful plot-weaving, Sun’s projections provide a necessary conduit that fills out the world of the play and opens a window into the characters’ psyches. Having been soured on film looping after the currently running production of Medea at BAM and its ubiquity in Ivo van Hove productions of the last decade, I didn’t expect to find it used so inventively here.
Yet, Sun and Chen deploy it to create mood–pre-recorded exterior shots of the crime scene were filmed at the playwright’s actual home in the Sunset District–and tap into the classic noir aesthetic. By virtue, the cameras also project an outsized version of the passions roiling beneath the placid expressions worn by the performers. You look at the actor on the stage, then to their on-screen doppelgänger, and confront the fact that you can never really know which version of the person holds the real truth.
Katigbak — co-founder and artistic director of the invaluable National Asian American Theatre Company — is a master of imbuing every word she speaks with innumerable possible levels of meaning. This characteristic makes her a perfect choice to play a woman who carries what she knows to the grave. (Katigbak also gets to offer a little comic relief, appearing late in the play as an imposing friend of her primary character.)
Similarly, Chin-Lyn projects an enigmatic air and sense of necessary danger that keep his true motives hidden until the right moment. In terms of style, Yoo and Chin-Lyn are like a perfectly balanced chiaroscuro — except in this case, their light and dark components gradually start to rub off on each other.
Class tension permeates the play. We first meet George and Leena in a flashback suggesting middle-class comfort, but soon learn of their disparate pasts. He’s a working-class immigrant, while she’s an American-born daughter of privilege; her father forbids their marriage. Perceptions of social status and rank also complicate Tom’s role in the overall narrative. I would have liked for Chen to have explored the role class plays alongside the other social issues evident in this play — as he did in his Passage, which was seen last year at SoHo Rep. At present, it seems like the only element that sputters to get off the ground.
In many ways, The Headlands operates as a study in contrasts: cool detachment versus emotional engagement; impenetrable facts versus constructed theories; the idea of family as simultaneously complete and fractured. Even the play’s title gestures toward bifurcated perspectives: the Marin Headlands, which factor into the narrative, stand outside the city limits, providing a few of San Francisco that’s sometimes cloudy, sometimes clear. Unsurprisingly, a thick fog occasionally rolls across the stage of the Claire Tow Theater, obscuring what moments earlier seemed so lucid and direct. Then the fog dissipates, and you’re left to wonder which image held the most truth. Maybe both. Maybe neither.