Point and Meet Cute: Strain and DeSanti rifle through their past.
Point and Meet Cute: Strain and DeSanti rifle through their past.

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It begins with a gasp and a laugh, and it ends with an open question—and so Honey Brown Eyes, Stefanie Zadravec’s bracing new play about the Bosnian troubles, both is and isn’t what you’d expect from a serious take on a grim topic.

Take that opening: A militiaman, bristling with armaments, comes thudding into an apartment kitchen just as a woman turns away from her cooktop. (Audience: Gasp.) He brandishes his machine gun, jumpy as a speed freak; she ducks her head a bit, extends the pot she’s just lifted from the burner, and squeaks the word that’s on the tip of her tongue: “Coffee?”

Huge laugh.

Make no mistake, those TV-comedy rhythms are no accident. The woman’s a Bosnian Muslim, and the nervous kid with the gun turns out to be a Serb, and the people who run things have decided they’re at war. But Zadravec knows that in the war in question, the combatants came with a popular culture in common, so the woman’s television keeps blatting its tinny sitcom, the laugh track sounding its increasingly grotesque counterpoint against the ebb and flow of what happens in that kitchen.

And as the soldier (Alexander Strain) and the woman (Maia DeSanti) remember who they were and what they loved before the insanity erupted—the power of that shared memory will promise one endgame, then deliver a guessable but still-wrenching other—it’s things like Serbian postpunk and American TV, the angularities of Ekaterina Velika and the melancholy absurdities of ALF, that backdrop the atrocities and make them seem so impossibly surreal. Zadravec even employs the jovial cadences of the network game-show host—though in a way that might make you shudder the next time your TiVo suggestions include an episode of Deal or No Deal.

Because as it serves up these slices of nostalgia—as it name-checks everything from MTV and The Cosby Show to (in the second act, in another city, with another mismatched pair) “It Takes Two” and Mahler—as it sets up its jokes and delivers its painfully torqued punch lines, Honey Brown Eyes never lets the audience forget the brutalities that consumed a nation that had once papered over its differences with the paste and the pulp of such consumables. The small cruelties and the petty thieving, the individual murders and the neighborhood slaughters, the rape camps and the “cleansings”—Zadravec references them in ways both offhand and ominous, and the result is a play that sometimes packs the make-you-jump punch of (another signal pop-culture influence?) the very best horror movies.

Some of that punch gets dissipated, it’s true, by awkward choices both authorial (that tale-of-two-cities conceit requires too many momentum-sapping blackouts, at least in a space like Theater J’s) and directorial (a child, emerging from her presumably dusty hiding place, wears a spotless white vest). And while Honey Brown Eyes purports to tell two interlocking stories, the play’s weight seems unevenly distributed; the fate of that second pair of characters seems somehow a less pressing question—which feels somehow unjust.

Jessica Lefkow’s principal cast inhabits this awful territory with admirable conviction, though: Strain’s both scary and pitiable as the squirrelly Serb, DeSanti cunning and moving and ultimately heartbreaking as the Bosniak woman. And there’s a great deal of warmth and chemistry between the twosome (Joel Ruben Ganz and Barbara Rappaport) who anchor the show’s less brutal but no less difficult second act. In a situation that we remember as appallingly inhumane, the four of them offer performances that are a kind of tribute to the humanity of those who suffered—to the humanity, even, of those who strayed.