There is a common phenomenon in modern playwriting that this reviewer likes to dub: “the revelation of a micro-aggression”. This is a moment within a play in which one character says something seemingly innocuous to another character, which that second character calls out for being subtly racist, sexist, classist, or judgmental of some sort. This being theatre, where, unless you’re an Annie Baker or a Kenneth Lonergan, everything has to mean something, this seemingly harmless comment is actually almost invariably a physical manifestation of a gargantuan chasm of hatred that exists within the first character’s soul. Prime examples of this phenomenon include prize-winning works like Disgraced or Clybourne Park, but perhaps have never existed more potently than in Christopher Chen’s You Mean to Do Me Harm, which is currently playing in its world-premiere production through the San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series at the Strand Theatre.
For you see, Harm does not just feature a single moment of revelation of micro-aggression; it’s a play that is seemingly nothing but characters calling each other out for the tiniest word choices they make. The plot revolves around two couples, Lindsey/Daniel and Samantha/Ben, who connect through two separate channels: Lindsey and Ben dated each other in college and Ben is set to be hired at Daniel’s company after being fired from the company that he worked at with Samantha. It is also relevant that Samantha and Daniel are Chinese-American while Lindsey and Ben are white. The first scene takes place at a lunch double-date, where Ben makes a comment to Lindsey about camping that the rest of the 90-minute drama revolves around, with every character ascribing what seems to be an impossible amount of weight to the most basic comment about camping that could possibly have been made.
Formally, Chen’s play is structured like Glengarry Glen Ross in reverse, that being that a pivotal scene with all characters in the play takes place first while the rest of the evening is spent with smaller groupings of the original 4, who each have conversations about what happened offstage in which everything is repurposed. This is not a terrible idea for an effective sociological drama, but Chen has a serious issue in how to get his characters to move forwards in any way that is interesting, and it becomes immensely tiring to have to watch characters continuously call each other out on the tiniest things that they have said to each other, only to watch every single call-out be exactly correct and every single word that any character says to another be carrying enough baggage to sink your average ocean liner. At a certain point, when two characters were discussing the intricacies of a conversation that they had several years ago, only to remember every single detail about what they said and how and why they said it, one is struck by simply how manipulative every character must somehow be in order for them to have so many alterior motives to what they are saying.
To be fair, Harm is not going for realism, its staging and structure being far less literal than many plays of its ilk, so the issue is less that the play doesn’t adhere to the boundaries of our reality than that the play doesn’t have enough to say on its own to make its structure be advantageous. Of course, its interest is in the coded messaging that we all use when communicating with the world, but Chen’s interests in it rarely go beyond the fact that it exists, and his work doesn’t carry around recognizable enough humans for the play to actually convince an audience of their own capacities. What’s left is a drama that offers a lot of promise in its first scene, but ultimately spends all of it on conversations that spin around in circles and a whole lot of means without an end in sight.
Despite the quality of the script itself, the San Francisco Playhouse has once again proved their excellence with their world premiere production of Harm, which is produced through its Sandbox Series, a program that helps in-progress plays get up on their feet in world-premiere productions so playwrights can see what their work looks like onstage and audiences can experience new theatrical voices, presumably before they become more well-known to theatergoers across the country. Performed in the 120-seat three-quarter round Rueff space at the A.C.T.’s Strand Theatre, director Bill English has assembled a remarkable team of four actors, who perform Chen’s script with unflinching focus and deeply thought-through character work. James Asher’s Ben and Don Castro’s Daniel both manage to make their characters’ toxic masculinity believable, and Lauren English’s Lindsey once again proves her to be an actress of exceptional talents and a remarkable conjurer of pathos. Charisse Loriaux, however, makes the strongest impression here, she being an actress that I was previously unfamiliar with and one that has immediately been added to my “actors of note” list. Her Samantha is almost an anti-performance, her physicality, facial expression, and intonation always slightly at odds with each other, yet somehow creating a synchronization that proves mesmeric. She proves to be the physical manifestation of Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s lyric from Wonderful Town: “it’s got a little twist that really drives you insane/because you find you can never get it out of your brain”. Whatever she’s doing, I want more of it.
Bill English’s direction knows exactly how to use a three-quarter round space correctly, and Zoe Rosenfeld’s set design is simple-yet-effective. A playwright simply couldn’t dream of a better production for a world premiere, and if the play itself isn’t yet ready for an audience, one can hope that Chen will have the ability to see what doesn’t work in Harm and begin to work on fixing it. Who knows? Chen might eventually have a masterpiece on his hands, and it could be all thanks to the Playhouse giving him this opportunity.
You Mean to Do Me Harm plays at the Stand Theatre in San Francisco through July 2nd. Tickets and information available here.