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Honey Brown Eyes

Stefanie Zadravec's compelling play set during the 1992 war in Bosnia uses both comedy and violence to keep the audience on its toes.

Sue Cremin and Edoardo Ballerini in Honey Brown Eyes
(© Lia Chang)
A Serbian soldier (Edoardo Ballerini) has barged into the kitchen of a young Muslim woman (Sue Cremin) in Bosnia, 1992. He brandishes an automatic rifle; she's frozen in place with a cup in her hand. After a silent, stressful moment, she rather absurdly offers him coffee. On a nearby table, a battery powered TV plays a Hollywood sitcom, with a laugh track punctuating the restless air in the room. This is the slightly askew world of Stefanie Zadravec's compelling Honey Brown Eyes, now receiving its New York premiere at the Clurman Theatre.

As a writer, Zadravec is skillful at keeping her audience on its toes. Absurd but raucous comedy can turn on a razor-thin edge to tragic violence, then to much darker comedy, and then on into the unknown. As a result, the tension builds almost unbearably at moments, especially through the second act, when you don't know whether to expect a tender gesture or a rude invasion (the latter usually executed by one of two bullying thugs played with understated menace by Gene Gillette).

Unfortunately, director Erica Schmidt is not always effective at mining these heightened moments. That opening scene with the coffee cup should be alternately sidesplitting and terrifying but, under Schmidt's guidance, it registers a bit too mildly. Her actors are only intermittently successful at rising to the formidable challenges of a script that requires them to bring emotional life to characters numbed by once-inconceivable acts of inhumanity. These are people who have lost the luxury of feelings. If an actor pushes too hard or not hard enough, as some do here, they upset the delicate balance of Zadravec's writing.

Ballerini does some of the best work of the evening as Dragan, a stunned young soldier who has found himself capable of brutality and compassion, occasionally at the same time. Dragan's non-regulation t-shirt, which advertises a famous Serbian rock band of the era (Ekaterina Velika, whose mid-80s hit "Honey Brown Eyes" gives the play its title), offers clues to the sensitive artist underneath his gruff exterior.

Daniel Serafini-Sauli also does some admirable work as Denis, an even more reluctant soldier who once made music with Dragan and is now on the opposite side of the war that is destroying their culture. Denis holes himself up in another kitchen miles away, where he is given refuge by a lonely, older woman played by Kate Skinner. Skinner's portrayal is deeply felt but would greatly benefit from the rule "less is more."

Set designer Laura Jellinek makes smart use of the Clurman's shallow stage by making it even more shallow, to the point of claustrophobia. Both kitchens are rendered on top of each other, so that some of the action occurs simultaneously, and never more than a few feet from the audience. Like Zadravec's script, Jellinek's work is an unassuming creation capable of surprises.

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