Reconciling our childhood views of our parents with our adult understanding of the world can be some of the hardest and most important work we’ll ever do as human beings. Throw an unsolved murder into the terra decidedly not firma of childhood memory and you have the set up for Christopher Chen’s absorbing new play The Headlands, currently premiering at the Lincoln Center Theater at the Claire Tow.
The stage is a bare white box except for a black rectangle in the middle that acts as a bench. The audience is greeted by Henry (Aaron Woo), a young 30-something man who introduces himself as an amateur sleuth and true crime aficionado. He begins to tell us about a 20-year-old unsolved murder he recently investigated that has stuck with him, that of one George Wong (Johnny Wu), a kitchen contractor in the Sunset District of San Francisco.
Touted in the marketing materials as “contemporary noir,” Chen’s The Headlands is certainly cinematic in its conception. The bare white walls of the stage turn into screens for film projections of either San Francisco and environs, the action on the stage, or people Harry is describing. We are literally “seeing” inside his mind as he is telling us what he is thinking. As he and his girlfriend Jess (Mahira Kakkar), whom he has turned into a true crime enthusiast as well, start piecing together the clues that they gather from Henry’s awakening memories and the bits and pieces they gather from family and friends, new light begins to shine on previous assumptions.
Conversations between Henry’s parents George and Leena (Laura Kai Chen) get repeated when new information gets uncovered and old understandings prove to be false. Little by little a new picture of the relationship between his parents, their history together and the circumstances surrounding his father’s murder becomes shockingly clear to Henry.
While most of us have not had to deal with such traumatic events in our lives as the murder of a parent, we can all relate to the process of discovering that our parents are not who we thought they were. Christopher Chen has written The Headlands in such a way as to be able to take us through the peeling back of the onion layer by layer, while Aaron Woo’s vulnerable and honest performance as Henry allows us to experience the effects of such discovery viscerally. It’s a powerful combination. But this is not a production for the faint-of-heart. It’s a hard-hitting family drama that deals with tough issues. It’s real and it’s fascinating. But it’s not easy.
(Photo by Kyle Froman)
"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."
Jesse Green for New York Times