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Broadway Reviews

The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - May 5, 2023

The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window by Lorraine Hansberry. Directed by Anne Kauffman. Scenic design by dots. Costume design by Brenda Abbandandolo. Lighting design by John Torres. Sound design by Bray Poor. Hair and wig design by Leah Loukas. Movement director Sonya Tayeh. Voice coach Kate Wilson. Dramaturg Arminda Thomas.
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Rachel Brosnahan, Gus Birney, Julian De Niro, Glenn Fitzgerald, Andy Grotelueschen, Miriam Silverman, and Raphael Nash Thompson.
Theater: James Earl Jones Theatre, 138 West 48th Street (Between Broadway and 6th Avenue)

Rachel Brosnahan and Oscar Isaac
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
An offhand wisecrack reference to filmmaker Akira Kurosawa's movie Rashomon in Lorraine Hansberry's The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window might serve well to explain the many different possible interpretations of the play, now in revival at the James Earl Jones Theatre following an earlier run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Rashomon is famously about the unreliability of eyewitnesses. Here, the annoying-charming Sidney Brustein (Oscar Isaac, giving a mesmerizing performance as the man at the center of the 1964 play) makes the remark in reference to his wife and her two sisters as each describes her relationship with their late father. No two versions are alike.

But the same also can be said of this play, which has been mined for meaning ever since its initial short Broadway run nearly six decades ago. The reason, of course, is that The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window is Hansberry's final legacy, her second and last play to be produced on Broadway. The first, five years earlier, was the extraordinary A Raisin in the Sun, so well plotted and filled with such glorious characterizations and flows of realistic dialogue that nothing about it comes off as dated or puzzling. But with The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, Hansberry was not able to do all of the revising and tightening that might have been in her mind; she was hospitalized with pancreatic cancer while the play was in rehearsal, and she passed away almost immediately after its closing.

Over the years, various productions have dipped into Hansberry's notes and drafts and used these to do some tinkering. But, essentially, what you see is what you get, largely the same play it has always been. In production, it all comes down to a matter of which of the plot strands gets emphasized. Based on what is on display at the James Earl Jones Theatre, as filtered through the eyes of director Anne Kauffman, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window has at least three different stories to tell.

Act I is more down-to-earth, a straightforward examination of a marriage that is on the verge of collapse. Sidney and his wife Iris (a splendid Rachel Brosnahan) are living a version of "la vie boheme" in Greenwich Village. Or, to be more precise, they are living Sidney's version of the lifestyle of a Village-based liberal New York Jew of the 1960s, someone who has bounced from trend (a failed folk music-themed club features heavily in the conversation) to progressive causes (Black civil rights, gay rights, left-wing politics) to buying and attempting to run a small weekly newspaper whose purpose is unclear even to Sidney. In a way, Sidney is a watered-down carryover of the 1930s activist Jew, though he is decidedly more engaged in talk than in action, while his heavy drinking and ulcers suggest another underlying tale, rather different from the freewheeling brainy vibes Sidney works so hard to convey.

Julian De Niro and Miriam Silverman
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
For her part, Iris has gone along because Sidney represents a kind of freedom and escape from her previous life. "I wanted things, a life, men, as different from Oklahoma and Papa as possible" is how she explains her attraction to Sidney. But now, after five years together, Iris realizes that "escape from" is not the same as "escape to," and she no longer is satisfied with being Sidney's exotic other, "the only living Oklahoma Greco-Gaelic-Indian hillbilly in captivity," as he puts it. Sidney's self-centered obliviousness and Iris' search for self-determination provide the serious meat to the bones of Act I, and both Isaac and Brosnahan play their roles to the hilt.

In truth, there is enough content and dramatic tension in Act I so that it could pretty much stand on its own. Still, it does seem Hansberry has more on her mind, some of which would perhaps have made it through to the kinds of revisions we can only speculate upon.

There is Sidney's circle of male friends, beginning with Alton (Julian De Niro), a Black man and former Communist who goads Sidney about hiding his head in the sand against social injustice and points out the inherent racism of falling into the '60s self-righteous perspective of "color blindness." As Alton puts it, "You don't care if I'm blue, green, purple, or polka-dot. Right? Well, think about that sometime. 'Cause these don't happen to be the options."

Also on hand are David (Glenn Fitzgerald), the provocative gay playwright presumably modeled on Edward Albee; Max (Raphael Nash Thompson), the local abstract artist who designs the unusual masthead for Sidney's newspaper; and Wally (Andy Grotelueschen), the "reform" politician whose election campaign sign it is that hangs in Sidney's window. All these characters pop in and out, each of them contributing bits and pieces to the overall design of the play, but you can't help but wonder how many of them would have made it through another round of editing and revision. As it stands, however, their presence makes up what might be considered the second plot strand: life among the middle-class male bohemian types for whom talk takes precedence over action.

But rather more interesting than the guys are the play's women: Iris, a struggling actress, and her sisters Gloria and Mavis. Gloria (Gus Birney), whom we meet late in the play but whose presence resonates throughout, makes her living as a prostitute, a trap that ultimately destroys her. Then there is Mavis, the eldest sister who comes off as a stereotypic bigoted conservative, but whose personal story intersects with Sydney's world view in surprising ways. Of all the supporting characters, it is Mavis who is the most intriguing, and Miriam Silverman makes a full-course meal out of the role.

Collectively, the three sisters and their efforts to free themselves from under the thumbs of the men in their lives make up the play's third plot strand. And while Sidney dominates the play by being the loudest and most self-important voice in the room, it is the women's story that could have easily turned the play inside-out. Maybe the "sign" that is being referred to is the sign that, to quote a rather famous song from the same year as the play: "The Times They Are A-Changin'"