The personal and political dialogue between and among two interracial couples of Asian-American and Caucasian backgrounds is fast and furious in Christopher Chen’s intriguing “You Mean to Do Me Harm” at San Francisco Playhouse.
The company brings the show, directed by artistic director Bill English, to its main stage in a full production after a successful 2017 run in its Sandbox Series dedicated to introducing new work.
Cassidy Brown, Charisse Loriaux, Katie Rubin and Jomar Tagatac offer compelling, nuanced portrayals of devolving relationships in which every character’s motivations come into question.
Ben (Brown), an unemployed white guy who’s done tech work in China, is married to Chinese-American Samantha (Loriaux), who heads up a global organization where Ben once worked. Lindsey (Rubin), a white attorney, is married to Daniel (Tagatac), who came to the U.S. from Shanghai as a child and also works in tech.
At the outset, they’re enjoying wine and lively conversation in a reunion of sorts. Garrulous Ben, up for a job with Daniel’s company, reminisces about a camping trip a decade earlier he took with Lindsey, his ex. They’re smart and funny as they verbally joust about geopolitical ramifications of a Google fiasco in China. All four make pithy comments.
But Ben’s seemingly innocuous camping anecdote reverberates through the rest of the show, which unpeels like a layered onion in scenes with varied pairings of the characters. Tensions mount and stakes get higher after Daniel tells Lindsey he thinks Ben had an ulterior motive with his camping story.
Each conversation reveals another insecurity or insincerity, as the men and women discuss, grill and scrutinize each other, including considerations of the role race plays in their intimate and professional lives — and in the world at large.
Chen’s clever, stylish script somehow manages to be realistic (the characters’ conversations are entirely believable) while also exploring the many undercurrents of human emotions and interactions.
Designer Angrette McCloskey’s nifty abstract set reflects the action’s varying levels. Primary conversations take place in a center area, which is surrounded by a ramp, where the actors who aren’t speaking closely observe their cohorts. Horizontal logs on a backdrop represent the incendiary camping tale. (It’s called “Campingate” by the show’s end.)
Theodore J.H. Hulsker’s evocative projections and jarring, interruptive sound effects complement the escalating anxiety in a show that’s riveting from start to finish.
You Mean to Do Me Harm
Where: San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Nov. 3
Tickets: $35 to $125
Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org