Distinctly invested in the intricacies of generational memory, the American Conservatory Theater’s “The Headlands” is an alluring, hilarious and ever-tangled take on the Asian American experience. With a runtime of an hour and forty minutes, the show follows amateur sleuth Henry Wong (Phil Wong) and his investigations into the decades-old murder of his father during a home invasion. Told through monologues and flashbacks, the play also traverses his parents’ San Francisco-based love story and the mysteries hidden within Henry’s own recollection of past events.
When Henry first walks onstage, there are no stilted theatrics. Rather, the audience is met with a direct and cordial greeting from the protagonist before being thrown headfirst into his true crime theories. From this moment on, “The Headlands” twists and tangles its audience, spinning a winding tale of intrigue and suspicion as Henry dives deeper into the secrets his parents withheld from him.
Dynamic and hilarious, Henry delights as a newbie investigator. Though Wong is trapped to pace onstage, his earnest cadence is instantly reminiscent of a true crime podcast; as he draws up a chair for the audience to pour over his findings, he pulls viewers ever-closer to his obsessive perspective. Equal parts clumsy and loveable, Wong’s performance drives the narrative, his quest for truth shining brightest alongside his curious charm — not a small undertaking for a story frequently propelled forward by monologue.
“The Headlands” is a bold take on the true crime genre, illustrating a medium often defined by a focus on primarily white victims and overblown violence. Instead of relying on these elements, the play uses true crime as a form of introspection, crafting a deeply intimate and personal narrative shaped by family intrigue and the secrets lurking in the darkest corners of one’s memory. Henry’s parents, Leena (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart) and Tom (Jomar Tagatac) are never shown in real time, but come to life during intriguing flashbacks depicted by Henry’s sometimes reliable narration. Henry’s girlfriend, Jess (Sam Jackson), serves as a searing, sarcastic foil to her partner’s flighty paranoia, helping with the investigation as well as providing a crucial break from his constant monologuing.
Wong introduces himself to the audience as one of the rare “San Francisco Natives,” ensuring that there is no mistake as to where this story finds its roots. “The Headlands” never leaves its noir-inspired San Francisco setting, familiar landmarks such as North Beach and the island of the play’s namesake filling in the story’s expositional cracks. Playwright Christopher Chen chose San Francisco in part for its mysterious qualities, noting in an interview “It’s beautiful here, but there’s something wild and feral just under the surface.”
Within the labyrinth of San Francisco, Henry’s investigation is also framed by a rotating facade of his childhood home. The all-white set looms behind him, one side the front of his house, and the other — a three-dimensional snapshot of his family kitchen — a staircase leading up to a grand window on the second story. The set functions both as a recreation of a police scene and as a blank slate reflecting Henry’s mind and memory, changing as new information is revealed. Combined with multi-colored projections of his case files and San Francisco, the design expertly pairs with Henry’s vivid dialogue, bringing to life a detective-like playground for Henry’s imagination.
Innovative and thrilling, “The Headlands” makes for a theatrical must-see. Whether it’s Henry’s engrossing rants or his family’s unwinding secrets, the play weaves a labyrinthian tale that leaves minds racing even after the curtains close.