Another Week, Another Round of History Plays in New York

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

‘Honey Brown Eyes’
Theater Row
410 W. 42d. St.
New York, N.Y.

The stage lights flash on and there is a thin Serbian soldier with an automatic rifle aimed at a terrified Muslim woman in a small, blandly decorated apartment in Visegrad, Yugoslavia, in the middle of the 1992 war that escalated from a civil war into a genocidal massacre between the Croatians, Bosnians and Serbs.  A sit-com is playing on a small television set perched on the tiny kitchen table.  The soldier is part of a brigade of unsupervised troops wandering through the city, killing men and rounding up women and children.  He has been told to take her to a hotel, where he knows the other soldiers will rape her.  It is a terrifying scene in a terrifying play by Stefanie Zadravec that brings back the worldwide anguish over the Bosnian war.

The woman is shoved, kicked and punched by the man and finally collapses to the floor.  Later, after a tense conversation amid the sounds of bombs exploding nearby, the soldier, Dragon, discovers that the woman is Alma, the sister of a musician, Denis, who was in his rock band several years earlier.  He tells Alma, who is now married and has children, that he had a teenage crush on her.

Alma tells him that her husband was captured and thrown to his death off a bridge.  She lies to him about the whereabouts of her children in order to protect them.  At the end of act one, Dragon leads her, carrying a bag of clothing, out of the apartment and towards a truck to transport her to the hotel.  

Far away, in the capital city of Sarajevo, site of the 1984 Winter Olympics, another man bursts into another apartment, this one home to an old woman.  He is Dennis, Alma’s brother. He is now a Muslim resister and hiding from his enemies. She takes him in, bombs going off close to her apartment complex, feeds him and tries to protect him

‘Honey Brown Eyes’ directed by Erica Schmidt, is a very good play. It is a violent play that keeps the members of the audience on the edge of their seats, frightened by the rifles, revolvers, bombs and general panic. There is stellar acting by Sue Cremin (Alma), Edoardo Ballerini (Dragon), Kate Skinner (Jovanka), and Daniel Serafini-Saudi (Denis). Cremins is superb as a terrified woman who tries to befriend her captor and, convinced he can help her, marches off to the hotel, gun at her back.  The actors playing the soldiers, Dragon and Denis, are opposites, one aggressive and one passive, and a nice contrast to each other.

The play moves at a fast pace, with soldiers running in and out of rooms, children dropping from ceilings, and doors opening and slamming shut in fury.  It has a never ending sense of foreboding.  There is a nostalgic yearning by the characters for the good old days, before the war, that is felt throughout the drama, as well as a fatalistic fear of the future.

The problem with ‘Honey Brown Eyes,” though, is that it is a jagged and incomplete play.  The opening act rolls along for fifteen minutes before you can figure out where the play is going.  Act two starts the same way.  The second act really does not connect to the first.  The soldier Dragon, who seems so brutish at the start, is a savior at the end, for no apparent reason.  There is a lot of story that you don’t learn that you need to know to enjoy the play.  It seems like two scenes plucked out of the playwright’s bag and dropped on to the stage.

A major problem is that the play does not explain the war in Bosnia.  The playwright assumes that people know a lot about it.  They don’t.  The general public just remembers it as a civil war between several sides that last several years in the early 1990s and involved a lot of deaths and ethnic genocide. That’s it.

The play never explains the reason for the war, the declaration of independence by ethnic states within the old Yugoslavia, or how it was fought.  The war resulted in the deaths of nearly 150,000 people on all sides.  Particularly brutal were the rapes, often in public, of between 20,000 and 50,000 women, many as young as twelve, by soldiers.  Much of Sarajevo, and other cities, were wrecked by three years of bombings. It was a political mess and very complicated.

The playwright should have had her characters explain the start of the war and how it was fought to put her tale in context.  As she tells it, the audience does not know who is fighting who or why.  The most striking moment of the play, the taking of Alma to a hotel where she is going to be mass raped, loses impact because we are not told much about the rapes.

“Honey Brown Eyes,” is a good play, but it needs more historical information so that audiences can understand all of its nuances.

PRODUCERS: Working Theater Company. Set: Laura Jellinek, Costumes: Emily Rebholz, Lighting: Jeff Croiter.

STARS:  Sue Cremin (Alma), Edoardo Ballerini (Dragon), Gene Gillette (Branko and Milenko), Beatrice Miller (Zlata), Kate Skinner (Jovanka) and Daniel Serafini-Sauli (Denis).

Runs through February.

‘Mistakes Were Made’
Barrow Street Theater
27 Barrow St.
New York, N.Y.

Felix Artifex is a harried New York theater producer working with unknown young writer Steven Nelson on his drama about the French Revolution in the new play ‘Mistakes Were Made,’ now running at New York’s Barrow Street Theater.  Nelson finished his historically accurate script on the rebellion centering on King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette.  Artifex told the playwright he was trying to get Hollywood mega-star Johnny Bledsoe to agree to play a role in the drama, a move that would make it an instant box office success.

And then the phone started to ring…and ring…and ring.

‘Mistakes Were Made’ is an historical howl, a wonderful explosion of comedy and angst starring the enormously talent Michael Shannon (Oscar nominee for ‘Revolutionary Road’ and recent Prohibition agent star of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’).  In the play, producer Artifex (Shannon) handles dozens of phone calls from numerous people involved in his scheme to land Bledsoe for the play and to raise money to finance its production.  It is a timeless study on how good history is changed to suit the moods of movie and theater stars and, in the end, becomes awful history fed to audiences as the ‘truth.’.

World-renowned actor Bledsoe (“You’re like Al Pacino,” coos Felix) tells Felix that the play about the revolution, led by Maximilien Robespierre in 1789 and featuring the bloody guillotine, should star ‘the kid,’ whom he would play.  If Nelson would add ‘the kid,’ Bledsoe would star in the play and the money would roll in. Bledsoe also demands that he have 33 percent more lines than the king.  Felix doesn’t mind this reconstruction of France one bit.

Felix then gets on the phone with the playwright and coyly asks if a play about a king has to star the king. Why not add ‘the kid,’ he says, and tells the playwright that the kid had a sister, another new character, who dies at the start of the rebellion.  In her dying breath, she makes her brother promise to make the revolution succeed.  He tells the writer that the new character, ‘the kid,’ makes sense and would get Bledsoe on to the stage.  It would also guarantee a super box office return.  The writer is flabbergasted.

The pleading producer Felix and the writer go back and forth in a number of phone calls while Felix screams at his unseen secretary and tends to his crazy, oversized fish.  The fish moves about in a large tank under the commands of a puppeteer.

Idea number two comes along soon.  Felix asks the writer why he needs all those actors on stage anyway.  Why not stage the French Revolution as a one man show, starring Johnny Bledsoe?

The writer is aghast.

Felix also knows nothing about the French Revolution, which is, of course, no drawback for producers of history plays and movies.  As an example, he continually refers to the leader of the rebellion, Maximilien Robespierre, as “Pierre.”

Next comes Felix’s producing partner, Oscar.  He gets so angry at Felix’s inability to seal the deal that he suggests that they abandon the French Revolution and make a musical out of the revered Harper Lee civil rights novel and film, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’  They would tone down the role of Atticus Finch, the lawyer (Felix sneers that Gregory Peck, who played Finch in the film, could not sing, anyway), and get Miley Cyrus to star in it.

In the end, on the phone with new investors, Felix concocts the most unbelievable finish to the French Revolution story ever heard—anywhere.  The new ending would surely make Robespierre turn over in his grave.

While Felix is destroying the play, and French history, the phone keeps ringing off the hook.  Felix must deal with other producers, someone trying to sell sheep to raise money for the play, terrorists who seize the vans full of sheep and an assorted group of moneymen around the world.  In the middle of all of this is his acidic relationship with Nelson’s agent and his ex-wife, who calls in the middle of his meltdown.

‘Mistakes Were Made,’ by the multi-talented Craig Wright, one of the writers on HBO’s series ‘Six Feet Under,’ is sharply directed by Dexter Bullard, who turns the basically one-man play (the secretary, played by Mierka Girten, is only on stage for a moment) into a tour-de-force.  He keeps Felix moving about the room, phones in hand, arms flailing in the air, making you see and hear all the people to whom he is talking.

The star of the show, and the man who makes this comedy as scalding as it is (not counting ‘Pierre”) is the tall, lumbering Shannon.  He sits, he stands, he turns over, he jumps, he cries, he jumps for joy.  His voice soars and plunges.  He storms about the stage better than the French rebels that stormed the Bastille in the 1780s.

The heart of the play, the revision of the script of the French Revolution play and all of European history, is a marvelous story about how real history gets turned upside down by the money men in show business.  It is a story, too, of how the writer reacts to it, something we can’t give away in the review.

Personally, I’d like to see a time trip French Revolution play in which Russia’s Lenin travels back to the eighteenth century with Karl Marx and Fidel Castro to lead the rebellion.  It could then be made into a reality TV show about called “Off With Their Heads” starring some women from the “Real Housewives” shows. Some log rolling and weight loss would be added.

PRODUCERS: Scott Morfee, Jean Doumanian, Tom Wirtshafter, others. Set: Tom Burch, Lighting: Keith Parham, Sound: Joe Fusco, Costumes: Tif Bullard. Directed by Dexter Bullard. Puppeteer: Sam Deutsch.

Bruce Chadwick can be reached at

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More Comments:

Michael Donovan - 1/24/2011

I saw Honey Brown Eyes last week, and I found your recent review very confusing.

You write that Honey Brown Eyes " a very good play. It is a violent play that keeps the members of the audience on the edge of their seats, frightened by the rifles, revolvers, bombs and general panic." You then go on to write that it's an incomplete play, and cite your issues. I have never heard of a play being both "very good" and "incomplete."

One of your issues is that the play does not delve deeply into the history of the conflict. However, Honey Brown Eyes tells the universal human story of people caught in a terrible and tragic conflict, where personal connections are shattered and lives destroyed by the irrational nature of civil war. The brilliance of this and similar plays is that they don't require in-depth knowledge of the subject to understand the deeper meaning of the action on stage.

You elaborate: "The playwright should have had her characters explain the start of the war and how it was fought to put her tale in context." Why would people on either end of a gun stop to explain why they were there? It makes absolutely no sense as a dramatic technique, and would lead to bland and out-of-context exposition. One might argue that an audience seeing a play about a war in Bosnia might already have an in the subject matter, or perhaps program notes would have helped, but asking the characters in a play to give a history lesson is a big mistake.

You complain that it's almost 15 minutes into the first act before you know where the play is going. This is a strange complaint about a 90-minute play: would you rather know where the play is headed from the beginning? That sounds like a very boring night of theater to me. The mystery, the uncertainty, is what builds dramatic tension. If we knew what was going to happen at the outset of the play, why would we be watching? As the strands of the story slowly come together for the characters, we are carried deeper into their narrative.

You write that the second act doesn't connect with the first. This is a very odd complaint, since the entire point of the second act is that an AWOL resistance fighter stranded in Sarajevo (Act 2) is trying to get back to his sister and her family stranded in Visegrad (Act 1). Add to this the fact that the protagonist in Act 1 (Dragan) is connected to the protagonist in Act 2 (Denis), and it's hard to justify this complaint.

You write, "The soldier Dragan, who seems so brutish at the start, is a savior at the end, for no apparent reason." It seemed clear to me and the people I was with that Dragan was never truly a brute, but an angst-filled, unhappy kid caught up in a terrible war, and he takes his last chance at redemption when it presents itself. What you see as inconsistency I see as a keen insight into human nature, with all it's paradoxical foibles and flaws. Had he remained the villain, there would be no dramatic arc to the story; there would be no story, in fact.

I understand your desire to make the play into a history lesson; this is not unexpected, given your obviously esteemed position as a professor of history. Nonetheless, it is the critic's job to illuminate, critique, and explain…not rewrite.