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I'm an NYC-based director, and this is an outlet for my various musings about theater and about the city of New York. Sometimes the subjects run together, sometimes they are entirely separate, but between the two they comprise the most fitful, most intense, most trying love affair of my few years. They fill my head, my heart, my mouth every hour of every day; they could fill a book.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Honey Brown Eyes

Honey Brown Eyes, presented by the Working Theatre and now playing at the Clurman at Theatre Row, is a thoughtful, cogent, human work by a deft hand; Stefanie Zadravec's play is tight and well-structured as it examines war in microcosm, lending a specific and surprisingly familiar face to its extreme cirumstances.

The play takes place in Bosnia, circa 1992, and at its core are a brother and sister living in the thick of the violent conflict that gripped their nation during that decade. Set in two different kitchens, the first act centers upon Alma - the titular Honey Brown Eyes - in her home in Visegrad and the second upon her brother Denis in Sarajevo.

The story begins just as the devastating ethnic cleansing of Bosnia's Muslim population has started, and the play's opening finds Alma looking down the barrel of an assault rifle. As it turns out, though, she knows the soldier wielding it. Although war has sharply divided them into opposing sides, the soldier, Dragan, once played in a band with Alma's brother Denis. Denis himself is absent, estranged from his sister. He has left to join the resistance, disowned by Alma as a result. Alma and Dragan are left to grapple with their relationship to each other and to Denis then and now, in the light of the terrible fate she is now facing and the role he is to play in it.

In Act II we meet the man whose memory hovers like a shadow over the kitchen of his sister in Visegrad. The second-act kitchen belongs to an older woman named Jovanka in Sarajevo - alone since her daughter and grandson left, attempting flee Bosnia as refugees - living out the rest of her days as comfortably as the violence surrounding her will allow. Into her kitchen stumbles Denis, himself a refugee, fleeing unnamed deadly forces outside Jovanka's door.

Honey Brown Eyes isn't so much about war as it is its effect on relationships, an examination of how they strengthen or strain under the bloody duress of the atrocities happening outside the front door. Jovanka tells Denis, "War teaches you the value of an onion"; the same could be said for what it teaches about the value of a relationship. The sight, smell, and taste of the onion is heightened by the weight of the war. So is the significance of every relationship, every human interaction heightened. Its texture, its meaning, is drawn into sharp focus, its importance elevated by the immediacy of war's terrors.

Still, despite the humanity that Zadravec bestows upon her characters, the play hits a note of unbelievability. The story could take place in any war, anywhere, and the play strains mightily to make that clear. It does so, though, at the expense of specificity that would have provided clarity and depth. Exactly what Alma faces outside her door, if she is "taken away" as she is meant to be, is unclear. Of course, we sadly know enough to imagine: death camps, perhaps? Execution? Torture and rape? Possibly, probably, some combination of the above. But we never find out for sure. All we hear from Alma of the terror she has witnessed is a quick, teary mention of tragedy; later Dragan tells another character ominously, "You don't know what they would have done to her," but this is all we learn from him. The vagueness of what might become of her does not undermine the story in the sense that it's not about horrors that await her, it's about her relationship to Dragan and her absent brother (and husband and child) in the face of them. Still, without specificity, the danger and the fear that drives the play becomes less immediate, less real. (This issue, it should be noted, is considerably relieved in the second act, as Denis and Jovanka confess their stories to one another in heartbreaking detail).

Compounding the problem is the miscasting of Edoardo Ballerini as Dragan. Despite his age and military position, as Dragan Ballerini emanates an aura of childishness and innocence. And understandable choice; he is, ultimately a sympathetic character and the sweet naivete he radiates makes his shocking final interaction with Alma all the more disturbing. However, the pendulum swings too far in the other direction: I never fully believe that he is capable of using the big gun he carries. For the relationship, and the act as a whole, to work, the audience must be kept on edge, always a little in fear of Dragan, despite the instinct to trust him, unsure of his real intentions.

Under Erica Schmidt's direction, the play moves easily and fluidly for the most part, although a few beats - mostly transitions and set changes - felt sloppy; greater precision would have added power to the production as a whole.

Despite these small concerns the play, the play shined. I have to admit, I had been looking forward to seeing Honey Brown Eyes ever since I heard an excerpt of another work by Zadravec (Electric Baby) read at an event at the Women's Project. The excerpt intrigued me, and I couldn't wait to see something more substantial. Honey Brown Eyes did not disappoint. It's a rare treat to see a play structured so well, that moves so adroitly through the narrative, bringing its many and varied characters together as easily and obviously as if they were interlocking pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

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