The entirety of “You Mean to Do Me Harm” revolves around a short comment made about a past camping trip. What would usually be a passing comment is turned into a tension-filled series of conversations, making up a plot that is incredibly suspenseful despite its apparent mundanity. The suspense is consuming, and the play is captivating all the way through, with strong writing and acting leading the way.
“You Mean to Do Me Harm” written by Christopher Chen and directed by Bill English premiered at San Francisco Playhouse on Sept. 22 and is playing through Nov. 3. The play follows two interracial couples — one Chinese-American woman, Samantha (Charisse Loriaux), married to a white man, Ben (Cassidy Brown), and a white woman, Lindsey (Katie Rubin), married to a Chinese-American man, Daniel (Jomar Tagatac) — as they react to a shared dinner party, in which one of them makes a seemingly harmless comment. When the comment is taken out of context, topics of perceptions, honesty and sociocultural relations are explored through the reactions and interactions of the characters
The success of the show is entirely founded on the strength of Chen’s writing. The dialogue is strong and natural, while producing the tension that is needed to drive the plot forward. The foundation for the play’s conflict is set up in the first scene, in which Ben brings up a camping trip from when he and Lindsey, who have a history together, were still dating. It is so quick and seemingly innocent that it almost goes unnoticed.
The next scene is between Lindsey and Daniel, alone together after the dinner party. Daniel confides in Lindsey that he felt uncomfortable considering the “connotations” that come with camping. To him, camping is not synonymous with a romantic outdoor getaway looking at the stars, as might be expected. For him, camping is an emblem of American culture, bringing in larger themes and other topics of the dinner scene, in which two of the characters’ Chinese backgrounds played a prominent role. After explaining his line of thinking, Daniel arrives at the extreme-sounding conclusion that Ben wants Lindsey back, despite their respective marriages. This sets the motions in play for the rest of the plot. Not only is Daniel’s dialogue in this scene unexpected in the trajectory it ended up going, but the fact that this would be the center of the entire play is unexpected in and of itself.
What follows is a series of scenes involving only two characters at a time, matching up all the possible pairs, from Ben and Lindsey to Daniel and Samantha to Samantha and Lindsey, and so on. Through this structure, the actors’ grasps on their respective characters really shine through. Each character acts slightly differently, altering their words and reactions, based on who they’re talking to. Each actor mangages to depict the layers of their characters through the varying interactions in a way that is both alluring and palatable.
While the play gets the pivotal and foundational elements right, there are a few technical issues that detract from the overall effectiveness. The stage blocking proves to be somewhat problematic, as the front of the stage is overused. By essentially ignoring the entire back half of the stage, there are too many instances of characters blocking each other. In one scene, a crucial moment of Daniel balancing glasses on top of each other is blocked for the entire half of the audience — only one side of the audience laughed in response while the other half had to wait for the following context to explain.
Furthermore, the play utilizes a background screen for random flashes of light, along with sudden sounds, meant to invoke an eerie, suspense-like feeling. These effects actually distract from the scenes occuring, taking the audience out of the moment. The script is already so strongly grounded in a suspenseful and tense tone that the audience does not need to be told this.
Regardless, these minor technical issues do not detract from the play as a whole. “You Mean to Do Me Harm” is an entirely smart look into human conversations and how different cultural backgrounds complicate them. The play is seemingly an examination of the everyday lives of these couples yet uses a magnifying glass to do so. The result is an intricate analysis into how these couples interact and will leave you thinking about your own conversations long after you leave the theater.
Nikki Munoz covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].