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Conflict too cool in Golden Thread’s ‘We Swim, We Talk’

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Joshua Chessin-Yudin and Sarah Nina Hayon play relatives with opposing viewpoints in Golden Thread Productions’ “We Swim, We Talk, We Go to War.” (Courtesy David Allen Studio)

A less poetic but more accurate title for Mona Mansour’s quasi-metatheatrical play “We Swim, We Talk, We Go to War” might be “We pretend to swim while arguing about whether the American military should be involved in the Middle East and whether any war ever serves a purpose.”

That title would reflect the playwright’s imaginative at times but ultimately uninspiring effort to dramatize one of society’s most serious, and timeless, issues.

A 40ish Aunt (the always wonderful Sarah Nina Hayon) and her teenage Nephew (Joshua Chessin-Yudin), of Lebanese extraction, are on opposite sides politically: She’s firmly anti-war in general, specifically opposed to America’s military presence in the Middle East, and has a heartfelt, if romanticized, connection to Lebanon.

He’s eager to kill “bad guys” and is, in fact, being trained to be an army helicopter pilot, although he admits to increasing doubts and fears about being deployed.

The two discuss their opposing viewpoints while scooting around on chairs to represent — quite amusingly at times — a long-distance (and scary) swim in the Pacific off the coast of San Diego. They tread water, do the dead man’s float, search frantically through the fog for the distant shore, lovely metaphors for the stuck place they, and we as a country, are in.

But their arguments, which continue onshore and are enhanced by two representational characters, the Arab (Adam El-Sharkawi) and the American (Tre’Vonne Bell), get repetitive and didactic, with information shoehorned in (news clippings projected onto a backdrop; statistics quoted, etc.).

Aunt is cautious in expressing her pacifist views; nephew is more truculent, as befits a teenager who thinks he knows everything.

Above all, they clearly love and respect each other, and know how to have fun together.

But all that warmth and laughter gets in the way, keeping their debate monochromatic: There’s never a truly impassioned conflict.

“You think I’m a warmonger,” he says mildly. “No, I think you’re a good person,” she insists. This is not the stuff of drama. And it’s clear early on that neither will change the other’s mind.

But there’s humor and an engaging earnestness, and under Evren Odcikin’s assured direction at Golden Thread Productions, some scenes play out quite nicely, among them Aunt’s re-enactment of a revealing conversation with a taciturn shopkeeper in Beirut, and a balletic, surreal fight between Nephew and Arab.

If only the play weren’t so — well, respectful.

REVIEW

We Swim, We Talk, We Go to War
Presented by Golden Thread Productions
Where: Potrero Stage, 1695 18th St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; closes Dec. 16
Tickets: $15 to $38
Contact: www.goldenthread.org

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