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The Headlands

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - February 24, 2020

Aaron Yoo and Johnny Wu
Photo by Kyle Froman
An armchair detective and committed fan of film noir gets in over his head when he decides to investigate a genuinely noirish murder, in Christopher Chen's The Headlands, an inventive mix of gradually darkening humor, family drama, and the vicissitudes of memory, opening tonight at Lincoln Center's Claire Tow Theater.

We first meet the dorky-charming protagonist Henry (Aaron Yoo) when he bounces onto the stage while the lights are still up and awkwardly introduces himself as an engineer for Google and an aficionado of true crime stories. He is there to tell us of one particular case, about a man who was shot to death in his own home in what officially was written off as an unsolved burglary gone wrong. But Henry is convinced there is more to the story, and the tale of his personal investigation makes up the bulk of the 90-minute play.

The Headlands reveals its secrets in peeling layers, and to say much about what Henry learns would be entering deeply into spoiler territory. But it's probably important to divulge one piece of information that Henry neglects to mention for several minutes, namely that the victim, one George Chong of San Francisco, was Henry's father.

As Henry sifts through the facts of the case, there are plenty of plot strands to keep you guessing through to the end. But the play is at least as much about the conflicting experiences of assimilation and the socio-cultural pressures facing the Chinese-American family at the heart of the play: Henry, George (Johnny Wu), and Henry's mother Leena, portrayed as a younger woman by Laura Kai Chen and as an older one by Mia Katigbak, who also appears as Leena's longtime friend Pat.

As Henry digs more deeply into the circumstances surrounding his father's death, he uncovers a great deal of surprising information about his parents' complicated private lives. He also keeps interpreting and misinterpreting what he learns from snippets of memories, a meeting with his father's business partner and with the detective who handled the case (both roles are played by Henry Stram), and an encounter with a familiar if somewhat sinister stranger (Edward Chin-Lyn). Along the way, he also manages to alienate his very supportive girlfriend Jess (Mahira Kakkar), who has to take a break from what has become Henry's obsession.

I would have liked to have seen more about how George and Leena were forced to deal with their changing lives within the Chinese-American community, especially with respect to expectations placed on women to abide by decisions of their fathers and husbands. Nevertheless, the cast members do a fine job of delineating their characters within the parameters of the detective story framework. The production itself is nicely supported by unobtrusive design elements that include an array of slides and projections by Ruey Horng Sun and sound work by Peter Mills Weiss that quietly incorporates bits of music reminiscent of a film noir soundtrack.

The Headlands
Through March 22, 2020
Lincoln Center Theater - Claire Tow Theater, 150 West 65th Street, Between Broadway and Amsterdam
Tickets online and current performance schedule: