Aaron Yoo in LCT3’s ‘The Headlands.’ (Photo: Kyle Froman)
Theater producers plan seasons months, if not years, in advance. Sometimes the confluence of current events can shed an interesting light on a particular work, as is the case with three Off-Broadway plays currently exploring themes of mortality. The Headlands, Unknown Soldier and We’re Gonna Die intersect in a way that creates a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Christopher Chen’s The Headlands delivers an engaging snapshot of a young man on a quest to find the truth behind his father’s murder. Integrating the use of both pre-recorded and live video, Chen’s script, mapped out like a film storyboard, provides detailed production instructions that bring the play’s San Francisco setting to life through a film noir lens.
Ruey Horng Sun’s projections, combined with emotionally resonant direction by Knud Adams, fluidly guide Henry (a charming Aaron Yoo) as he acts as an amateur sleuth along with the help of his girlfriend Jess (Mahira Kakkar). Through flashbacks, we see circumstances shift through the perspectives of his socially and economically established mother (played at different ages by Laura Kai Chen and Mia Katigbak) and first-generation father (Johnny Wu). Sound design by Peter Mills Weiss underscores the eeriness with suspended chords and subtle oppressiveness, made all the more potent by the appearance of a mysterious young man connected to the case.
Chen, in addition to creating an intriguing visual identity for The Headlands, also plays with language. Repeated passages gain traction once more information regarding the case is revealed. “I want us to be a team on this. Like always,” says Henry’s mother in three different iterations throughout the play, each time shadowed with a different meaning.
The use of video can be seen a few blocks away in Ivo van Hove’s $15 million revival of West Side Story. In many ways, The Claire Tow’s intimate space more effectively integrates the medium with staging that enhances rather than distracts. The Headlands is an exciting new work that harnesses the power of technology for an intriguing exploration of one man’s journey into the past.
Lincoln Center Theater at The Claire Tow
150 West 65th Street, NYC
Through March 22
The theater community suffered a great loss with the premature death of composer/lyricist Michael Friedman (The Fortress of Solitude, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) in 2017 at the age of 41. Two years prior, Williamstown Theater Festival produced Unknown Soldier, a chamber musical about a woman investigating her past upon the death of her grandmother. The work now receives its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons, once again, under the direction of Trip Cullman.
Like The Headlands, mystery surrounds Unknown Soldier’s central character, Ellen (Margo Seibert), who investigates the meaning behind a photograph she discovers that shows her grandmother (played at different ages by Estelle Parsons and Kerstin Anderson) with a young soldier (Perry Sherman) who may or not be her grandfather. Friedman, along with book writer and co-lyricist Daniel Goldstein, play with time-jumping to explore the past, as well as the impact of unsatisfying relationships on both Ellen and Andrew (Erik Lochtefeld), a librarian she engages to help unearth the past.
Mark Wendland’s scenic design consists of a white, monochromatic research archive, furnished with plenty of movable furniture and small-scale house models, all scurried about by a five-person ensemble who occasionally take on cameo roles. Much of Ellen and Andrew’s interaction takes place on opposites sides of the stage over imaginary email (and perhaps phone, it’s unclear) until he surprises the amateur investigator at her grandmother’s house with flowers and promise of a picnic.
It’s in this sequence and the preceding scene where Ellen sings of her wedding “with no parents there and nobody who cried,” and Andrew recalls a chance encounter with a woman on the subway that we begin to understand the gravitas of Friedman and Goldstein’s subject matter. While much of Unknown Soldier languishes in the past without enough suspense to hold one’s attention even for an intermissionless 90 minutes, it is the present-day struggles with understanding our legacy, our compromises and our disappointments that linger past the curtain call.
Seibert, who made her Playwrights Horizons debut last season in Thanksgiving Play, proves her musical prowess in tackling Friedman’s melodically jagged score. There’s never much chemistry between her Ellen and Lochtefeld’s nebbish Andrew, only a faint hint of possibility, clouded in the past.
416 West 42nd Street, NYC
Through March 29
We’re Gonna Die
Second Stage Theater resurrects Young Jean Lee’s (Straight White Men) We’re Gonna Die from the theatrical afterlife since the show premiered at Joe’s Pub in April 2011. Lee, who’s far-reaching creative talents includes director, playwright and filmmaker, also performed the lead vocalist role in its original incarnation.
Janelle McDermoth (A Bronx Tale) takes on the lead singer/monologist role in Second Stage’s production. While she possesses powerful vocals, director/choreographer Raja Feather Kelly’s isn’t able to coax enough warmth across the imaginary divide between storyteller and audience to connect us to Lee’s various meditations on death.
This isn’t to say the work is an evening of gloom and doom. David Zinn’s all-white set (styled with different props could be swapped out for Unknown Soldier), reminiscent of a purgatorial waiting room to heaven or hell depending on which way you take the circular staircase center stage, gets a lavender-hued wash thanks to Tuce Yasak, punctuated with golden geometric spotlights and other concert-style effects. Combined with Naoko Nagata’s modern streetwear costumes, We’re Gonna Die’s visual presence is almost enough to carry the 65-minute show, which, at times, feels remarkably long and swallowed by the Tony Kiser Theater — a space too big for this intimate pontification.
Lee’s engaging stories weave down different roads of how we process self-worth, the loss of a parent, infidelity and the like. Her matter-of-fact narrative avoids the saccharine but cumulatively feels like a hijacked episode of The Moth (live storytelling events that originated in New York City in 1997) with a live band. Eventually, the singer and band romp around the stage in Kelly’s awkwardly choreographed grand finale that goes from a childlike birthday party to a destructive mosh pit with the audience encouraged to join in the refrain, “We’re gonna die.”
Given the state of the world, I hope that’s not the case. Especially with the promise of Lee’s ever-evolving theatrical voice.
We’re Gonna Die
Tony Kiser Theater
305 West 43rd Street, NYC
Through March 22
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. His arts writing has appeared in Dramatics Magazine and on TDF Stages and ShowTickets.com. Matthew is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a past fellowship recipient from The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.