Don’t go to local playwright Christopher Chen’s new play “The Headlands” expecting the kind of metatheatrical, layered and intellectually challenging material that you may know from his previous work, the kinds of twists and turns that elicit startled laughter. 

“The Headlands,” now in a West Coast premiere at American Conservatory Theater, has, instead, some of the trappings of film noir: Henry, the narrator on a journey to solve a crime. The suspenseful sound effects by designer Leah Gelpe (including weird non-musical thumps). The sexy dame (Henry’s girlfriend, Jess). The crusty police officer, the next-door neighbor with apparently something to hide, the red herrings and misinterpreted clues, even plenty of videos and projected images to create an almost-filmic quality. 

And then, of course, there’s the unspooling of the mystery. Now, 20 years after his father, George, was murdered in his own home, Henry wants to find out who dunnit, or if it was perhaps suicide. He’s propelled into action by the recent, startling deathbed words of his mother: George was in despair right before he died, she says. 

But why? Henry wonders, and embarks upon an amateur-sleuth adventure involving a series of scenes, tracing clue after clue, coming up with theory after theory, in true crime-story fashion.

Intermittently, scenes play out that spring strictly from Henry’s fevered imagination—scenes of marital conflict, betrayal and more, the scenes changing as he learns more and more about his parents. Along the way he tracks down everyone he can think of who knew his father back then and re-animates remembered scenes from his own childhood, looking at them with fresh eyes. Jess seems supportive of his obsessive quest. 

But the play is caught awkwardly between being a dysfunctional-family drama and a noir mystery. As a drama revolving mainly around two relationships—mother and father, Henry and Jess—it doesn’t dig deep enough, leaves us wondering about the hinted-at but never fully explored problems that each couple faces. 

And as a noir mystery, the ambiance, under Pam MacKinnon’s usually spot-on direction, feels shoehorned in, an uncomfortable fit. (For example, a scene between Henry and Jess, full of unjustified freighted silences, goes nowhere.) 

Disappointingly, too, the talents of this excellent cast are not fully exploited. The comedy chops of Phil Wong as Henry go unused; only his wonderful comic timing is on display.  

From left, Johnny M. Wu, Phil Wong and Erin Mei-Ling Stuart appear in “The Headlands,” onstage through March 5 at the Toni Rembe Theater. (Photo by Kevin Berne) 

Similarly, Keiko Shimosato Carreiro, a San Francisco Mime Troupe stalwart, is miscast in two serious roles—she has an inherent comic quality that doesn’t fit the material. And Charles Shaw Robinson, whose acting is so subtle and understated, is simply underused in two tiny roles, as is Sam Jackson as Henry’s vibrant girlfriend. And two more roles, both well performed, simply demand more development from Chen: the young mother (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart) and the late arrival, Tom (Jomar Tagatac). 

Still, it’s great fun that Chen set the play in San Francisco’s basically boring Sunset District (ahem, I live here) and briefly in Marin, with plenty of visual effects, thanks to designer Alexander V. Nichols: projected scenes of familiar neighborhood streets; iconic city views; even the onstage façade of a typical Sunset house on a stage that revolves to reveal the house’s innards) and all the usual city sounds of seagulls and streetcars. 

Whatever he is experimenting with, Chen will continue to be a gift to the San Francisco theater scene. 

American Conservatory Theater’s “The Headlands” continues through March 5 at the Toni Rembe Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$110. Visit or call (415) 749-2228.