‘The Headlands’ Theater Review: A Classic Film Noir Finds Its Way to the Stage

Christopher Chen’s new mystery intrigues with its many twists and turns. If only he had put a more cynical sleuth at its center

Photo: Kyle Froman

Christopher Chen possesses a great cinematic vision. And clearly he knows his film noir movies. In those screen classics, the Asian characters were usually played by actors like Gale Sondergaard and Warner Oland, and relegated to supporting roles. And a favorite setting was often that most Asian-influenced of American cities, foggy San Francisco.

Chen takes those characters and that city, and puts them center stage in his new play, “The Headlands,” which opened Monday at Lincoln Center Theater at the Claire Tow, the company’s Off Off Broadway space. The play tells a great film noir story.

A son (Aaron Yoo) decides to investigate the murder of his businessman father (Johnny Wu), guilty of embezzling money. Soon, he wonders if perhaps it was a suicide that had been covered up by his mother (Laura Kai Chen) seeking to protect her beloved husband’s reputation. Or was she covering up for the real murderer? Or did she commit the murder? The son continues to ask different questions, and with each one, the ground under him shakes like San Francisco during an earthquake.

Knud Adams, the director, helps to ground Chen’s play in the world of the cinema, and in that endeavor, he’s aided mightily by Kimie Nishikawa’s white box set. It’s the perfect space to show big images of San Francisco (projections by Ruey Horng Sun) that often threaten to swallow up the actors, but in a good noirish way. Especially haunting are the video-cam images of Yoo in close-up when the son finally learns the truth about his family’s complicated past.

Christopher Chen gets away with something that even Alfred Hitchcock couldn’t, in “Stage Fright.” At one point in “The Headlands,” he has his characters enact a false narrative. In another scene, he dares to put a flashback within a flashback. It happens when Yoo’s character turns the narrative over to another character, played by Edward Chin-Lyn, whose identity should not be revealed here except to say that he brings real menace and gravitas to the stage.

If only “The Headlands” had more of that dramatic heft. As amateur sleuths go, Yoo’s upbeat but concerned son makes the Hardy Boys look downright hard-boiled. Christopher Chen’s vision is terrific. His execution of it is in need of some tough, wisecracking similes. Calling Sam Spade.