When Dashiell Hammett wrote his great San Francisco noir The Maltese Falcon, he drew upon his deep knowledge of the City to imbue it with ruthless realism and site-specific detail. Even today you can walk in Hammett’s footsteps from the Tenderloin to downtown, and glimpse traces of the City as it was, a character as integral to the plot of the novel as Sam Spade.
In Christopher Chen’s new play The Headlands — a family drama with a murder mystery at its heart — San Francisco similarly plays a starring role. It is no mere backdrop to the narrative, but an active participant in it.
A born-and-raised San Franciscan, Chen meticulously uncovers parts of the City little referenced in the guidebooks and travelogues. His protagonist Henry (Phil Wong), a self-described “amateur sleuth,” traverses a landscape hauntingly familiar to longtime residents: a childhood spent in a stucco-clad, single-family home in the Outer Sunset, followed by a tech job and condo on the Embarcadero (“I’m part of the problem,” Henry admits sheepishly). In flashbacks, his parents meet-cute on an overgrown overlook in Land’s End and canoodle at the base of Coit Tower. His father George (Johnny M. Wu) attempts to bond with a young Henry by taking him on hikes in the Marin Headlands, where they can look across the water and see the City basking in its own self-referential glow.
But just as San Francisco provides a picturesque container for Henry’s fonder memories, it also delivers the fog which obfuscates their uncomfortable truths. As an adult, Henry is only beginning to discover these truths, secrets contained within the low-voiced half conversations around the kitchen table: the quiet melancholy of his father looking out of the window at night. The abiding mystery of his death by gunshot, a violence that shocked their insular community. A mystery now decades-old — and no closer to being solved than it was on the first day his body was discovered.
Tautly directed by A.C.T.’s artistic director Pam McKinnon, The Headlands reveals itself sedately, bit by tantalizing bit. Alexander V. Nichols’ set is deceptively simple, an almost aggressively blank wall that cleverly morphs into the interiors and exteriors of a series of iconic San Francisco homes, streetscapes and hilltops, thanks to a few choice furnishings and a series of well-executed projections. This is a quintessential Christopher Chen play: an homage to Noir — but with fewer fedoras and more earnest heartache. It’s a labyrinth of unexpected twists and contradictory perspectives that keep you guessing until the very end.
In a satisfying demonstration of restraint, Chen’s characters say as much with their silences as most might with a loquacious monologue. In one scene, Henry and his girlfriend Jess (Sam Jackson) conduct a lengthy disagreement primarily through their nervous tics: a jiggling foot, an avoidance of eye contact, an anxious swallow of beer. In another, George stands silently at the aforementioned window, reduced to a shadow, trapped in what his wife, Leena, later describes as “despair.” He’s an unknowable cipher to his son, then and now.
It’s Leena — played younger by Erin Mei-Ling Stuart and older by Keiko Shimosato Carreiro — who provides the first essential clues for Henry’s quest to learn more about his father’s unexplained death. It may be his watchful, silent father at the window around which Henry builds his first vague hypotheses, but it’s the ellipses between his mother’s often quotidian conversations that conceal the most.
Watching Stuart and Carreiro trade this role back and forth throughout the play is especially enjoyable. They both so skillfully bring complementary facets of Leena to life that she becomes by far the most fully-realized character in the play. It’s a characterization that deepens with every revelation, surfaced behind the mischievous grin of a young woman falling in love, the wounded eyes of a grieving mother, the offhand remark of a widow at dinner.
While Leena frequently wears her heart on her sleeve, Henry struggles to identify his own complicated emotions surrounding his family history and his place within it. As Henry, Wong vacillates between emulating the stillness of Wu’s father figure and Stuart’s ebullience — a delicate balance. As the mysterious Tom, A.C.T. regular Jomar Tagatac imbues his unpredictable role with the most menace. But no character is more menacing than the troubling void at the heart of this whodunit — a void that each character attempts to fill with their own particular spin, never quite landing on a unified version of the narrative.
Theater-goers looking for the full genre experience of a ham-fisted, hard-boiled pulp fiction replete with fast cars, faster romance and impenetrable lingo may find the chilly environs of The Headlands not quite to their taste. But for those of us who revel in our own secret San Franciscos — internal terrains of beloved sandwich shops, local breweries and breathtaking vistas — spending time investigating Christopher Chen’s through his precise playwriting is a pleasure.