It’s no small accomplishment to create deeply human characters and personal conflicts that symbolize larger entities and issues.
But masterful local playwright Christopher Chen — who recently won an Obie for his metatheatrical comedy “Caught” at New York’s La MaMa — has done just that in his new, provocatively titled comedy-drama “You Mean to Do Me Harm.”
Commissioned by San Francisco Playhouse, it is now world premiering in the company’s new-plays Sandbox Series.
On its most accessible level, this witty and suspenseful play traces the intricate dynamics among four people comprising two mixed-race marriages.
On a macro level, it evokes the relationship between two behemoth (and racially different) countries.
It starts in the manner of many plays about two couples: at a pleasant social event that quickly turns uncomfortable.
In this case, Lindsey, who’s Caucasian (Lauren English) and her Chinese-born husband, Daniel (Don Castro), are hosting Lindsey’s old college flame, Ben (James Asher) and his Chinese-American wife, Samantha (Charisse Loriaux).
Early on, tensions rise slightly with a casual conversation about Google being booted out of China. Is Daniel defending the Chinese government’s position?
And a seemingly innocuous comment from Ben, recalling how he and Lindsey used to go camping together back when they were dating, threads its way ominously through the entire play like a poisonous snake.
Then there’s the complicated and heavily loaded job-related dynamic involving all four, and a female-specific bond that seems to form between the two women, and such wary two-way and four-way manipulations among all characters that by the end you won’t necessarily know who is lying and who is not.
As always with a Chen play, the plot is completely unpredictable, altogether an intricate, but never frustratingly obtuse, puzzle.
“It’s interesting how we’re seeing things differently,” remarks Daniel at one point — a statement that clearly, but never heavy-handedly, applies to our racial and cultural mix (Caucasian, Chinese, Chinese-American) in both business and personal interactions, and, of course, to our two governments.
As helmed by Playhouse artistic director Bill English, “Harm” is briskly paced, elegantly staged (with the characters’ mysterious inner lives at times physicalized) and so beautifully performed — the actors so deeply emotionally connected and nuanced in their portrayals — that audience sympathies are likely to vary from one character to another at any given moment.
Ultimately Chen’s play resonates on multiple levels.
You Mean to Do Me Harm
Presented by San Francisco Playhouse
Where: Strand, 1127 Market St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes July 2
Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org