Chen causes masterful Harm in the Playhouse Sandbox

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Christopher Chen’s world-premiere play You Mean to Do Me Harm features a cast that includes (from left) Charisse Loriaux as Samantha, James Asher as Ben, Don Castro as Daniel and Lauren English as Lindsey. Below: Loriaux’s Samantha (left) English’s Lindsey go for a hike. Photos by Ken Levin

San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen has brains for days (and days) and a theatrical sense that runs from absurdist comedy to political thriller. He reins in some – not all – of his wildest theatrical impulses for his latest world premiere, You Mean to Do Me Harm, a production of the San Francisco Playhouse’s new play development program known as the Sandbox Series.

There are only four characters in Harm: two married couples, each comprising a Caucasian-American and a Chinese-American partner. That’s important because Chen, in this incisive 80-minute play, is using mixed-race marriage to dive deep into the notion that when it comes right down to it, geopolitical machinations are essentially global manifestations of our personal relationships to others, to our particular life experience and to ourselves. Spoiler alert: that paints a pretty bleak scenario.

The play, performed in the black-box Rueff at ACT’s Strand Theater, begins as a quartet as the two couples meet for a good-natured dinner. The wife of one couple and the husband of the other went to college together and dated, but that’s all in the past (10 whole years ago). That the two characters with history happen to be the white ones is going to turn out to be important. There’s also another reason for the party. It turns out that one of the husbands, who has been unemployed since his wife was promoted and he was laid off at the same company, is now going to be working with the other husband at an up-and-coming search engine called Flashpoint.

The natural conversational rhythms of this dinner party are beautifully conveyed by Chen’s script, with the mix of awkwardness and enthusiasm, the link of nostalgia for the former lovers and the usual quick definition of who we are by what we do. Director Bill English deftly guides his excellent actors into evermore tension, but it’s the kind of tension that begins, as we will hear often in the upcoming scenes, in the subconscious and operates in hidden channels. As one character puts it: “Just because something isn’t said doesn’t mean it isn’t said.”

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James Asher is Ben, who will soon begin work at Flashpoint in the online content department. He laughingly describes himself as the “white China guy” in that he was hired, in part, for his expertise on all things China (he has lived and worked there, made it the subject of his dissertation, etc.). He will be described later on as a “good balance of being white and being sorry about being white.” Daniel (Don Castro) was born in Shanghai but moved to the U.S. with his family when he was 5. He feels threatened by Ben, perhaps because of the past association with his (Daniel’s) wife but also because Daniel, at heart, thinks Ben is an “armchair Orientalist.”

Daniel’s wife, Lindsey (Lauren English) is in corporate law, and when she is prompted to weigh in on the discussion of China-America relations, she does the kind of geopolitical parsing out “degrees of shittiness” on all sides that would make cable news networks shimmy with delight. But Samantha (Charisse Loriaux), Ben’s wife, wants to challenge that notion and cites a “fairness bias.” Things could get contentious here, but everyone is in a good mood (the wine helps), and everyone is a grown-up, so the conversation grinds, bumps and steadies to the point where everyone raises a glass to the Cold War.

And that’s just the first scene. What follows is a series of duets that break down the racism and micro-aggressions and traps and betrayals of that seemingly benign evening. By fueling his drama with racial and cultural differences, Chen is able to quickly establish the shaky ground underneath most relationships, especially when it comes to being honest, really honest. That two people can live together (to say nothing of being truly honest) seems, at best, an unlikely notion, without some sort of peace treaty: what will be ignored, what will be allowed (or not), what will be forgiven. The depth of anger and insecurity and dishonesty (subconscious or not) that comes up in both of the play’s relationships is astonishing, and the level to which Chen is able to take us in such a short time is remarkable.

At certain points, the naturalism of the play is pushed aside, but it works because there are discussions here that benefit from loosening the bonds of reality. As heavy as this subject matter is, there’s a crackling energy to the production that keeps it from bogging down or slipping into clichés about race or relationships. Chen is too smart for that, and it also helps that no one is a bad guy unless everyone is a bad guy. They’re complicated humans with rich intellect and deep roots. Life is hard for them, and though the play simply stops more than it ends, it seems life will keep getting harder, and the poisons of the world will continue to corrode us personally and politically.

Christopher Chen’s You Mean to Do Me Harm continues through July 2 in a San Francisco Playhouse production at the Rueff at The Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20 and up. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Making friends with Golden Thread’s Enemies

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In Yussef El Guindi’s Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat, Arab-American authors and couple Noor (Denmo Ibrahim) and Gamal (James Asher) navigate tensions both personal and professional. Below: Mosque leader Sheikh Alfani (Munaf Alsafi, left) prepares to send his son Hani (Salim Razawi) off on his first trip to Egypt. Photos by David Allen Studio.

When you go to a show from a specialized company like Golden Thread Productions, which focuses on plays from and about the Middle East, you expect your perspective to be expanded, to have your assumptions challenged and to encounter voices you may not hear enough. In its 20 years, Golden Thread has earned a strong reputation for accomplishing all of the above and more with more than 100 new plays produced and truly enlarging the conversation about the Middle East to include a diversity of artists, experiences and points of view.

With Golden Thread’s latest production, Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat by Yussef El Guindi, the conversation about the Middle East is front and center as a Muslim American writer attempts to find her voice as a writer, publish a novel, maintain a relationship, combat stereotypes about Muslims and live her life with some degree of enjoyment, engagement and self-respect. But because this woman, Noor, is so beautifully drawn, we don’t see her simply as a spokesperson for her birth country or her religion or for all writers or all women. Rather we see her as Noor, an incredibly intelligent woman of complexity and beauty and talent and sensuality and temper and flaws.

Much of that richness comes from El Guindi’s script. The rest comes from the sublime performance by Denmo Ibrahim, an actor of commanding presence and depth. All the characters in the play are interesting and multi-dimensional, but Noor is the passionate center, even though not all the characters – notably the head of a Mosque and his son – interact with her directly. Hers is the strongest, funniest, most impassioned voice, even though others might shout more loudly. And here’s a triumph: we actually watch a writer write and it’s INTERESTING!

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The play’s subtitle, Lively Scenes of Love and Combat, turns out to be quite an accurate description of the two-plus-hour play, though the combat ends up being more lively, especially the battle between Noor and Mohsen (Kunal Prasad), a successful Egypt-born Muslim writer now living in the United States. His publisher (Annemaria Rajala) is interested in Noor’s manuscript (only if she can rewrite it to reflect more of the heroine’s Egyptian-American experience), so he’s recruited to woo her into the publishing house fold. The problem is that Mohsen has become a popular talking head representing the Muslim-American experience in the nauseating 24-hour news machine, and the viewpoint he espouses does not sit well with Noor or her combustible boyfriend, Gamal (James Asher). When Mohsen and Noor meet at a dinner party, the play crackles with intensity as their differing ideologies about how to represent their shared culture clash.

At least Noor is capable of having an intelligent, mostly civil conversation with her adversaries. Gamal, on the other hand, is becoming a loose canon who’s beginning to scare himself. The play opens with Gamal cleverly sabotaging one of Mohsen’s TV appearances, and the success of that disruption leads him to another involving Sheikh Alfani, the head of a local mosque who has also become a go-to guy when the media needs a Muslim representative.

Playwright El Guindi allows us to get to know these multifaceted characters more than we might in another play this full of action, which means that we see Sheikh Alfani (the superb Munaf Alsafi) not just as a victim of one of Gamal’s “pranks” but also a compassionate community leader and a loving father to his son, Hani (Salim Razawi), who will soon be making his first visit to see his extended family in Cairo. The father-son dynamic is powerful here, and in a series of scenes, most notably their goodbye at the airport, Hani’s first ecstatic, detailed report about his experiences in Cairo and his father’s emotional plea for him to return, we sense generations passing, culture evolving and depthless love existing alongside sorrow and fear.

This is a remarkable play for many reasons, not the least of which is its ability to deliver potent, emotional characters and a plot in which surprising things happen (and just a side note: how refreshing it is to experience a play where things actually happen!). There’s sex, deep rumination, harsh conflict, galvanizing anger, violence, manipulation, lying, fierce intelligence, incisive criticism and genuine affection. Director Torange Yeghiazarian and her tremendous actors throw the conversation wide open and invite the audience to be active participants in the drama. The elegant, simple set by Mikiko Uesugi allows for quick scene changes abetted by the effective background projections of Kevin August Landesman, and the pace never lags.

We care about El Guindi’s characters as people making their way in the world, even the ones we may not like much (like the pompous but somehow sweet publisher played by Dale Albright who practically fetishizes all things Egyptian). That makes for powerful, unforgettable theater, which ends up feeling an awful lot like the rich, frustrating and head-spinning love and combat of real life.

Yussef El Guindi’s Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat continues through Nov. 20 in a Golden Thread production at Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$34. Visit