Satirizing society takes skill and surgical precision. Molière, one of its most celebrated practitioners, made it his mission to lampoon religion, aristocracy and social hypocrisy. Two seasons ago, the Pearl Theater staged a fantastic Tartuffe. They are mining more of the master with The Misanthrope, a 17th-century comedy that attacks the fops who favor conformity over confrontation. Now at City Center, it reminds us how modern -- and insightful -- the farceur was.
Alceste (Sean McNall), the titled character, despairs of society's two-faced sensibility: friendly in person, cutting behind one's back. A confirmed truth-teller who despairs of mankind's appeasing impulses, he declares he will "break with the whole human race." One catch: He's in love with Celimene (Janie Brookshire), a witty, beautiful woman who holds court over would-be suitors and engages in the behavior he deplores. She manages to speak her mind -- yet is politic when necessary. They adore each other, making their emotional, combative encounters a pleasure to watch.
However, many of Celimene's admirers, such as Acaste (Matthew Amendt), expend an extraordinary amount of time gossiping and primping; they drive Alceste mad. When he refuses to admire the mediocre verse of Oronte (Kern McFadden), the latter sues him. Jealous of Celimene's admirers, Arsinoe (Joey Parsons) wraps her own venom in a pious front. By contrast, Philinte (Shawn Fagan) represents a measured foil for Alceste's moral extremism. The absurdity of superficial relationships is pierced; as is the disquieting tyranny of naked truth.
The supporting cast are all sound; Brookshire is particularly good; so is McNall, a Pearl stalwart. The production has a certain charm, despite a curiously sparse set. But a healthy injection of archness would not be amiss.
Honey Brown Eyes, a moving drama at the Clurman on Theater Row, is set in Bosnia, 1992. The play explores war's devastating effects on individuals, both the brutality and unexpected mercies.
The piece opens violently -- Dragan (Edoardo Ballerini) smashes a door, points an assault rifle at a young Muslim woman (Sue Cremin) and orders her out. Murders and rapes are commonplace; there is no safe haven. Her would-be assassin is wearing fatigues and the T-shirt of a Serbian rock band. The rag-tag uniform defines him -- but beneath the coarse mask is a sensitive musician expected to do unspeakable acts. In Ballerini's capable hands, Dragan is nuanced, cruel one minute, tender the next.
Playwright Stefanie Zadravec doesn't indulge in stereotypes; she recognizes that chaos unleashes demons and, on occasion, angels. Some like the menacing Milenko (Gene Gillette) succumb to evil instincts; others, like Joanka (Kate Skinner) retain their humanity. When Denis (Daniel Serafini-Sauli), an escaped soldier breaks into her apartment, we witness the ironies of those caught on opposite sides of war. The author is focused on the personal cost of political nightmares. It's Serb versus Croat, Muslim versus Christian -- and no one wins.
Ballerini and Skinner are standouts in a good cast, and Laura Jellinek's cramped set design works. But there are disconnects: Alma doesn't initially register Dragan's abuse. The stilted response means it takes valuable time to calibrate the tension, which should exist from the outset. Similarly, when Denis acts out of character, it upends the fear that defines Sarajevo life. Despite the occasional misstep, Zadravec is to be lauded for taking a faraway conflict and skillfully revealing its universal lessons.