Review by Tulis McCall
(17 Jan 2011)
This is a brave play in many ways, but the sum of the parts does not add up to a whole.
Stefanie Zadravec has taken a recent war, about which we Americans know very little, and laid its messy and often tragic bits on the stage along with the human elements to which all of us can relate. It is a noble attempt. War is so easily left to the news and the Internet. It is removed from us – even the undeclared war that our own soldiers are fighting is remote unless you happen to know a soldier. So Zadravec’s subject matter is not only timely, it is urgent. Bravo.
The country is Bosnia. In Vinograd, Alma (Sue Cremin) is surprised by a soldier Dragan (Edoardo Ballerini) who breaks into her apartment. In the struggle that ensues when he demands information about her daughter, she is knocked unconscious. When she comes to, she and Dragan discover that they knew each other teenagers. He was in a band with her brother Denis (Daniel Serafini-Sauli) and she was the girl that everyone wanted and admired. Soon the gun is gone put aside, and an almost amiable discussion ensues.
In the second act, a woman in Sarajevo, Zlata (Beatrice Miller) takes in a man running from the local thugs. Denis is part of the resistance and more or less lost. Again, within minutes, an amiable – under the circumstances – conversation is struck up. This is the Denis we have heard about in the first act who still wonders about his sister and her family.
In both cases Zadravec uses simple strokes to show us the human and dehumanizing aspects of war. The intimacies shared are real, and we are drawn to these people and their circumstances.
Where Honey Brown Eyes falls short is in the play’s structure and details. What gets in the way are the implausible actions and the missed connections. Dragan lets Alma leave the room to pack her things while he watches a small portable television. Why does he let her out of his sight? He also sits with his back to an open door – no thought to someone who might ambush him. (In New York, restaurants and clubs bars are never placed with their back to the street as it leaves them vulnerable. Kind of think it might be the same in a war?) We are told the building is being cleared, but it takes nearly 45 minutes for the action to complete while Dragan waits for a possible daughter to show up. When he takes too long in the apartment his fellow soldiers do little more than yell from the stairway below, when it is clear they have raped and murdered other people in the apartment. Why don’t they interfere here?
In the second act there is a similar laid-back quality – despite the gunfire and explosions in the neighborhood – as well as contrivances. When Alma puts a cassette into her player it will not work until she realizes it is not plugged in. When she plugs it in she is shocked by the loud rock music that blares from her speakers. She lets Denis in under the din of the music that she cannot seem to figure out how to shut off. Denis locates the right button, when all that was needed was to unplug the machine once again. Hello?
Alma offers clothing, food and liquor in short order to a man she does not know. They drink and share intimate details of their lives before he must move on. Denis too discusses the band and his old mate Dragan, so we know that these are the two men whose past is connected.
And the one thing we want to happen – having these two men meet again – never does. Zadravec offers us the story of two men, once friends, now on opposite sides of a war, and she never delivers. It is a classic story that dates back to the Greeks and beyond. But here it gets lost in the story of the confusion, shame and disorder of war. No matter how many stories there are, one must be chariot to the rest. Here that does not happen.
The actors are all quite good, and do their best to fill the time that the text stretches into implausibility. Zadravec is served well by her cast and director who follow the script. Now she needs to look to the structure of her play and make a decision about what story she is telling. She has courage and curiosity and now needs a few more tools in her quiver to steady her aim.