Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
The characters in Christopher Chen's You Mean to Do Me Harm, now appearing at San Francisco Playhouse, find themselves in just such a modern predicament. Ben and Samantha are an interracial couplehe's white and she's Chinese. As the play opens, they are sharing drinks with Lindsey and Daniel, also an interracial pairing, but this time it's Daniel (Jomar Tagatac) who is Chinese and Lindsey (Katie Rubin) who's white. Lindsey and Ben had dated for a time years before, but now Ben (Cassidy Brown) has been hired by Flashpoint, the same company for which Daniel works, and the two couples are reconnecting. Or are they?
You see, while Ben is a bit of an expert on China (the "white China guy" as he puts it), and a new hire at Flashpoint (a company whose search engine is about to expand into the Asian market), Daniel, a Flashpoint exec, seems mistrustful of his new, soon-to-be colleague. This is symbolized by his mistrust of Ben's love of camping ("That's a lot of nature."), and especially by Daniel's reaction to the stories Ben tells of his wilderness trips with Lindsey all those years ago. The conversation in this opening feels forced and awkward, and it's hard to determine whether that's the playwright's intent or an inability of the cast and director Bill English to tease out the natural rhythms in the text.
Technologylike that created by Ben, Daniel, and their engineering counterparts in companies like the fictional ones for which they workhas expanded our awareness of people and cultures outside our own local realms, but as Samantha (Charisse Loriaux) states, "Awareness is not rapport."
As this 90± intermissionless play progresses, the alcohol-induced warmth of the opening soon gives way to disconnections and misunderstandings borne of the very same cultural differences social technologies have either erased or laid bare, depending upon one's perspective. There are many clever dramatic elements in Chen's text. Most notably, he leaves all four actors on stage even when only two are participating in the scene, leaving the other pair as silent observers, like lurkers in an online chat room. Director English and his creative crew (notable work by set designer Angrette McCloskey) place the action in a spare, architectural setting that reinforces the chilly distance that exists between the characters. He separates scenes (and occasionally punctuates them) with static-y bursts of sound (from sound designer Theodore J. H. Hulsker) of the sort one might hear when plugging a cable into a wrong socket in a bit of electronic equipment, and projects images (also by Hulsker) both strange and familiar, on an upstage scrim.
All this disconnection managed to seep into this observer, and I spent the evening in a near constant state of discomfort. Some of this is no doubt due to the efforts of Chen and English to keep the audience a bit off-kilter, but some is also due to a very thin plot and even thinner characterizations. None of the four come off as truly dimensional, real people, and feel nothing like the Silicon Valley types I have known over the years. Instead they seem to be mere tools Chen uses to make his points about the gulf that exists between people and cultures. And while that may be satisfying on an intellectual level, it left me feeling that I was the one who had been done harm.
You Mean to Do Me Harm, through November 3, 2018, at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Thursdays and Sundays at 7:00pm, Friday-Saturday at 8:00pm, with matinees Saturdays at 3:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm. Tickets are $35-$125, available at www.sfplayhouse.org or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.