February 29, 2020

The Clever Mysteries of “The Headlands”

Christopher Chen’s intriguing memory play The Headlands works on so many levels that it’s hard for me to keep track of all of them.

It starts out as a crime procedural centered around an investigation into a long ago murder in San Francisco’s Chinese community. Then it cloaks itself in the film-noirish moodiness of illicit love and shady financial dealings. And ultimately it becomes a meditation on assimilation, identity and the narratives that we and others weave around ourselves.

The play bounces back and forth between the present as a young armchair sleuth named Henry tries to figure out what caused the mysterious shooting death of his father, an earlier period of the 1970s when Henry’s parents—his father a poor immigrant to this country and his mother the daughter of one of the city’s wealthy families—met and fell in love and a bit later when the child Henry fears they may be falling apart.

The result is a kaleidoscope of a play that shifts constantly as new information is added, reinterpreted, viewed from different angles. The tone is jokey at first but gradually becomes more pensive as Chen and director Knud Adams peel away the layers of the stories that Henry's investigation reveals.

They’re ably assisted by a top-notch cast, whose first among equals is Johnny Wu who, with just a subtle alteration of voice and posture, convincingly plays the father at several periods in the character’s life, from an almost nebbishy immigrant dishwasher to a seemingly confident businessman.

But everyone is terrific and it’s particularly wonderful to see Asian actors getting to explore a full spectrum of emotions that range from the romantic to the malevolent. And what a pleasure it must be for them to be in a play that doesn't shy away from the issues of race and otherness but that doesn't wallow in them either. 

Still, the production’s true MVP is its video projections, which may be the best I’ve ever seen. The stage of LCT3’s Clair Tow Theater, where the show is running through March 22, is almost bare except for white scrims on which projection designer Ruey Horng Sun displays images of mid-century San Francisco that provide a perfect backdrop for the slight but still glamorous seediness of the story (click here to read more about how they were assembled).

The title borrows its name from the often foggy promontory across the bay from the city and it made me nostalgic for the time I spent in San Francisco before the tech bros took it over. The Headlands only runs 90 minutes but I would have happily stayed longer.

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