At first it seems as if “The Headlands,” the beguiling new play by Christopher Chen that opened on Monday at the Claire Tow Theater, is going to fall into the trap that many staged detective stories do. Instead of enacting live conflicts, they narrate crimes that occurred in the past. If I wanted that kind of experience, I’d plug in my earbuds and listen to “Serial.”
But “The Headlands,” a mystery set in the Bay Area with a vigorous nod to “Vertigo,” is merely feinting in that direction. Chen’s main character is a 30-something Google engineer named Henry (Aaron Yoo), whose sideline of solving cold cases is initially presented as just another aspect of his nerd personality.
“Tonight I’m going to tell you about one particular case I studied,” he begins, as if he were hosting a podcast.
That case is the murder, 20 years before the action, of George Wong, the co-owner of a kitchen contracting business in the Sunset District. No one was ever charged, no motive adduced, and Wong’s wife, Leena, who discovered the body and might have known more, is now dead of cancer. Still, Henry comes to suspect from piecemeal clues that the killing was more than the random burglary gone bad that police had declared it to be.
Henry’s connection to the story also turns out to be more than random: He’s George Wong’s son. (I won’t spoil any more of the plot, which in any case includes a school of red herrings.) The clues he uncovers come not only from fresh evidence — he interviews George’s business partner (Henry Stram), Leena’s best friend (Mia Katigbak) and the detective who originally investigated the case (Stram again) — but also from his half-buried memories, garbled and enigmatic though they may be.
It’s in those memories that the play’s deeper drama starts to awaken. Re-enactments of his parents’ early years, as recalled by the elderly Leena (Katigbak again), uncover conflicts of which Henry was barely aware. Some arose from the couple’s contrasting social status: George, a new immigrant working as a dishwasher in Chinatown; Leena, a second-generation princess in Pacific Heights. It was far from both neighborhoods, across the Golden Gate in the Marin Headlands, that they met and courted over braised pork and sour cabbage.
Other memories are Henry’s own, from the period immediately preceding the murder — if it even was a murder. In them, the 40-ish George (Johnny Wu) and Leena (Laura Kai Chen) argue about things their curious young son could not comprehend. Why was his father so morose? Why was his mother so hurt?
We see these anxious scenes repeated several times, nearly verbatim, but each repetition is recolored, like a melody underscored with different harmonies, by the new information Henry has turned up in the meantime. Even the meaning of an individual word, such as “despair,” changes as the mystery unfolds. Memory is not just unreliable, Chen demonstrates, but also highly contextual. The known facts of the past are only a small part of the picture.
The picture itself is key to this LCT3 production, sleekly directed by Knud Adams on a set, by Kimie Nishikawa, that consists mostly of blank walls suitable for projections. Those projections, by Ruey Horng Sun, support not only the play’s noir sensibilities with lots of lamplit San Francisco streets but also its view of the fragmentary nature of consciousness. Images flicker, regroup, disappear, return. What seems like documentary evidence may be merely a trick of light in air.
If “The Headlands” achieves greater depth than its mere procedural aspects at first suggest, it’s because of that double vision. In the outer story of Henry’s inquiry, Chen’s focus widens from the unreliability of historical memory to the unreliability of even contemporary perception. Exhibit A is Henry’s girlfriend, Jess (Mahira Kakkar), whom he introduces as an ideal helpmeet, eagerly participating in his investigation.
“Some of our favorite memories as a couple involve hunching over crime photographs, brainstorming ways a man’s head could have been bludgeoned in,” he says in what passes for sweet talk.
But he may not be reading Jess’s signals correctly, and when we — too briefly — get a glimpse of their relationship from her perspective instead of his, the complacency of the genre cracks open. It does so again, at greater length, with the arrival of a character I cannot tell you about. Suffice it to say that in a wonderful reorientation of perception, we are forced to review the entire story, literally, but this time from a previously unimaginable point of view.
I wish these re-orientations, the most exciting part of the play, took up more of its 80-minute running time, and that the nod to noir style were sharper. (The dialogue occasionally slumps into woodenness.) Like most detective stories, “The Headlands” depends too much on the mere withholding and manipulation of information, but since that is Chen’s theme, you tend to excuse it. Even if not, the engaging cast — especially Yoo, Chen and Katigbak in the better-written roles — makes up for any authorial glibness with completely grounded performances.
That groundedness is key in a play that, like Chen’s best-known earlier work, “Caught,” wants to live simultaneously on many levels. “Caught” was set in the art world; “The Headlands,” as the pun in its title suggests, in the even-narrower confines of the human imagination. The least solvable mysteries, it seems to suggest, are the ones we carry inside us.
Tickets Through March 22 at the Claire Tow Theater, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, lct.org. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.
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