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A CurtainUp Review
Honey Brown Eyes

By Lina Zeldovich

Why are you doing this? .— Alma
Because you are a Muslim piece of shit.- .— Dragan
Honey Brown Eyes
Kate Skinner and Daniel Serafini-Sauli
(photo credit: Lia Chang )
Stephanie Zadravec's Honey Brown Eyes is a slice of life we were lucky to never experience. Despite a couple of loose ends, it is an emotionally compelling drama and staged well enough to deserve being honored with the Helen Hayes award for Best New Play in 2009.

When the lights come up, we are in Visegrad, a war-torn town in Bosnia of 1992. The scene is a small kitchen where a paramilitary soldier has his rifle pointed at a thin, still young woman with a Turkish coffee pot in her hands. Both stand in silence as the sitcom on a small portable TV chatters away, its canned laugh making us even more uncomfortable. Alma (Sue Cremin), the woman, finally speaks, "Coffee? Would you like some? I just made it." The man is Dragan (Edoardo Ballerini) whose crew is here to load every Muslim resident into a truck (and take them someplace terrible) before their homes are burned.

Following the information on a rumpled piece of paper, Dragan wants to know the whereabouts of Alma's daughter, but she fiercely insists she lives alone. Their exchange goes bad and he strikes Alma with his rifle, leaving her unconscious on the floor. As he chooses to stick around to "wait for the girl" rather than join his troopers on the departing truck, he begins playing air guitar while watching the TV. When Alma comes to she recognizes Dragan from years before when he was her brother's rock band mate. Dragan too begins to remember the past when Alma was the girl with the Honey Brown Eyes he was smitten with at fifteen. The duo trades stories of the past.

Strangely, we detect a sensitive side to the scrawny Dragan, whose haphazard nastiness intermingled with flashes of humanity. Ballerini does a good job of creating a soldier who doesn't want to be one. The script, however, fails to explain why Dragan never makes an attempt to apologize to Alma for beating her up even when he realizes who she is. It's also not clear why he's so hell-bent on waiting for the daughter in question. He may not want to partake in the atrocities, but it remains our guess.

If Dragan is bad news, the entrance of Branko (Gene Gillette) redefines cruelty. Even Dragan is afraid of this military psychopath whose tastes in women make us shudder. "A ten-year old is a delicacy, but a twelve, twelve can make a real Chetnik," he says when Dragan tells him he's waiting for Alma's daughter. Later he hits us with another blood-curling line, "I like how the bones crack in the skinny ones." With a wild smile and a glow in his eyes, Gillette achieves the frightening image of an armed monster on the loose.

The dramatic intensity drops a notch in the second act where Denis (Daniel Serafini-Saudi), Alma's brother and Dragan's old band mate, escapes a local mob in Sarajevo. He finds temporary sanctuary in an old Serbian woman named Jovanka's apartment (Kate Skinner). While Jovanka's and Denis's stories are no less compelling than Alma's and Dragan's, they are acted with less dramatic force, thus mellowing down the pain. The intensity picks up again when Visegrad and Alma's house are brought back into action and the two, juxtaposing both storylines.

Director Erica Schmidt sees to it that the fight scenes make us gasp, Laura Jellinek's set is rustic and authentic, down to the stoves and pots. Bart Fasbender's sound effects and Jeff Croiter's lighting work well enough to leave us feeling shell-shocked.

By the time we see Dragan banging on Alma's twelve-year old daughter Zlata's (Beatrice Miller) door, we know him enough to understand that he is trying to save her. But there's still Branko to put the rescue plan in jeopardy. It doesn't make for a neatly tied up ending -- but wars are like that.

Honey Brown Eyes
Written by Stephanie Zadravec
Directed by Erica Schmidt
Cast: Sue Cremin (Alma), Edoardo Ballerini (Dragan), Gene Gillette (Branko), Beatrice Miller (Zlata) Kate Skinner (Jovanka) Daniel Serafini-Saudi (Denis)
Sets: Laura Jellinek
Costumes: Emily Rebholz
Sound: Bart Fasbender
Lighting: Jeff Croiter
Stage Manager: Fran Rubenstein
The Clurman at Theatre Row. 410 West 42nd St. 212-244-3300
From 1/09/11; opening 1/16/11; closing. 2/06/11.
Tuesdays at 7 pm, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 pm, with matinees Saturdays at 2 pm and Sundays at 3 pm.
Reviewed by Lina Zeldovich based on Jan 16 press performance
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