Since Edward Albee’s estate recently refused to cast a Black actor in a revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, it’s probably a given they’d say no to an Asian cast as well. Christopher Chen rectifies that persistent lack of diversity on stage with You Mean to Do Me Harm. In that respect, the Bay Area playwright succeeds at integrating an Asian-American point of view into a familiar genre, the domestic melodrama. While Chen introduces several nuanced ideas about our perception of race in Harm, he fails to develop them into a coherent and dramatically satisfying finale.
The setting is familiar, a bourgeois dinner party of four. Daniel (Don Castro) and Lindsey (Lauren English) are hosting a celebratory evening for Ben (James Asher) and his wife Samantha (Charisse Loriaux). The company Daniel works for, Flashpoint, has just hired Ben. They’re finishing off a bottle of wine when, in passing, Ben mentions a camping trip he’d taken 10 years before with Lindsey, his ex-girlfriend, who is now Daniel’s wife.
This seemingly innocuous anecdote about a walk in the woods turns into the actual flashpoint — and the play’s governing metaphor — that the plot turns on. Like Woolf? and Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage and Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, two couples meet, mirror each other, and reveal ugly truths about the institution of marriage. Chen complicates his version of this story by making two of the characters white and two of Chinese descent.
Daniel was born in China but, at the age of five, came to the United States with his family. Samantha was born and raised in the U.S. But both characters share a heightened sense of what it means to be seen as the “other” in America — meaning not white. As the dinner conversation progresses, including an argument about Anglo-Sino relations, we learn less about their damaged psychology and more about their working lives, or lack thereof.
Chen has written a play that suggests that the cure for angst is a satisfying career. For non-whites, status and prosperity are also clear paths towards assimilation. In a medium that regularly plumbs dysfunctional relationships for content, it’s rather a revolutionary idea to dramatize a person’s pursuit of finding a meaningful job. These characters aren’t vacuous, neurotic or vain. They’re adults testing out the limits of their professional selves. The contemporary challenge they face is how not to allow their personal lives to deteriorate from neglect.
Harm is also not overly concerned with capitalism or consumption. Nobody on stage is wasteful or avaricious. Race comes into the play when the two interracial couples begin to question their compatibility. In each successive scene, Chen breaks up the quartet into pairs and explores the meaning of certain stereotypes and assumptions. Ben and Lindsey reminisce about their college romance and their current spouses. Samantha and Daniel talk about being married to white partners, and what it means to live in a liminal space, being at once Chinese and American.
When Lindsey and Samantha go for a walk in the woods to tell each other their secrets, Chen also addresses their grown-up, feminist concerns. It’s when Ben and Daniel are alone at last to contend with Ben’s camping anecdote that Harm strands the actors. Chen opts for absurdity instead of elucidation. The men are forced into a physical fight, but it’s done comically. Ben suddenly dons a trucker cap and a fake hipster beard as they tussle in slow motion. The scene would make sense in a sitcom version of the story, but it’s a tonal mismatch for what’s come before it.
Chen took the reverse approach in his play Caught, which was produced last year at Shotgun Players. That play, a triptych, started out in absurd territory. Then, in the final act, the audience was suddenly watching a serious drama. Yet despite the shift in tone, what sustains Harm from entirely devolving into nonsense is Bill English’s smart direction. He’s coaxed real relationships from the four actors, choreographing their interactions with subtly stylized movements.
What the script omits entirely is a kiss, a brush of a hand, or some other gesture that signals affection (the hugs on display are all acts of aggression).When Ben and Samantha have a screaming fight, it dissolves into laughter but they don’t touch after it ends. Chen locates their passion in ideas not in their bodies. The director and the actors work hard at overcoming that obstacle. But as their characters are written now, they have no emotional compass to guide them toward intimacy. They’re disconnected from themselves and each other, wandering in a lonely wood.
You Mean to Do Me Harm, through July 2, at The Rueff at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., 415-677-9596, or sfplayhouse.org/sfph.