The first of the many surprises in “The Headlands,” the latest, cleverly crafted play in New York by trickster San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen, comes after Henry (Aaron Yoo) introduces himself to us as a Google engineer, a film noir buff, and an “amateur sleuth” who’s been looking into the unsolved murder of one George Wong, a kitchen contractor.
Many minutes into Henry’s explanation of the mysteries surrounding the twenty-year-old cold case, in the middle of a flashback conversation between George (Johnny Wu) and his wife Leena (Laura Kai Chen), Henry tells us: “They stop when they see me in the doorway. Oh, I’m their son. Sorry for not telling you earlier…”
Henry was 10 when his father was killed. The official explanation was that it was during a burglary. But when Henry’s mother is dying 20 years later from cancer, a remark she makes in her delirium convinces Henry that she was covering up the real story. He goes on a quest to find out what really happened.
There are many clues and many red herrings in “The Headlands” about who killed George Wong, as Henry, with the help of his girlfriend Jess (Mahira Kakkar), sets about to interview George’s old business partner and the detective who had been assigned to the case (both portrayed by Henry Stram), as well as Henry’s deceased mother’s best friend (Mia Katigbak, who also portrays Henry’s mother when older), and a couple of other characters I won’t tell you about. (The less I tell you about the twists and turns, the better.) But Henry’s delayed revelation about his personal involvement is the first clue that the play will be more than a murder mystery. It’s as much a contemplation of perception and memory and family dynamics, of grief and love and longing, and the cost of not fitting in. It is a love story; we see the courtship between George, a Chinese immigrant fresh off the boat, and Leena, a second-generation “princess,” the daughter of a shipping magnate. It’s a story of family secrets and about how much we really know about the ones we love. It becomes increasingly clear it’s a story in which Henry proves an unreliable narrator.
But theatergoers can rely on Christopher Chen to mess with our heads.
This was clear in 2016 with the New York premiere at La MaMa of “Caught,” Chen’s play that sent up the art scene by portraying a conceptual artist who is actually a con artist, and presenting the play as a kind of conceptual art, and as a series of cons. As with “The Headlands,” “Caught” was playing with perception, but in service of several more explicitly intellectual themes, such as the intrinsic trickster nature of art, the problematic intersection between politics and art, even the gap between East and West.
“The Headlands” is less playful in tone, and less artsy in theme, and it more straightforwardly adheres to a genre that can be called San Francisco Noir — although “straightforward” is a deeply misleading description of anything by Christopher Chen. Director Knud Adams’ production does justice to the play, with a game seven-member cast and a design that sets the right tone of mystery and precisely fits the snug space of Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater. Of particular note are Ruey Horng Sun’s spot-on video projections – dizzying, dazzling, dark, but always relevant — which feel like a lesson in how to use video on stage in direct counterpoint to the current production of West Side Story.
Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center
Written by Christopher Chen; Directed by Knud Adams
Sets by Kimie Nishikawa, costume by Tilly Grimes, lighting by Mark Barton, sound by Peter Mills Weiss, projections by Ruey Horng Sun
Cast: Laura Kai Chen, Edward Chin-Lyn, Mahira Kakkar, Mia Katigbak, Henry Stram, Johnny Wu and Aaron Yoo
Runtime: 80 minutes, no intermission
The Headlands is on stage through March 22, 2020