The first major New York revival in 50 years of Lorraine Hansberry’s second play, 1964’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, has a great deal going for it. The cast now has film star and Golden Globe winner Oscar Isaac in the title role while his wife Iris is played by Emmy and Golden Globe winner Rachel Brosnahan, star of the hit television series, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. It is directed by Anne Kauffman who staged an acclaimed production at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2016. The supporting cast includes Miriam Silverman recreating the role of Iris’ sister Mavis Parodus Bryson which she played in Chicago and which won Alice Ghostley a Tony Award for Best Supporting Actress in the original Broadway outing.
A failure in its original production starring Gabriel Dell and Rita Moreno, produced on Broadway by her ex-husband Robert Nemiroff while Hansberry was too ill to complete rewrites, it did not succeed in a 1972 Broadway revival with Hal Linden and Zohra Lampert. All three New York productions were tweaked in different ways. Unfortunately, the latest revival now at the BAM Harvey Theater cannot be counted as having reversed the play’s fortunes. It still seems vastly overwritten and verbose as it attempts to cover too many topics (political corruption, anti-Semitism, racism, artistic fulfillment, prostitution, drug addiction, marriage, homosexuality, etc.) Almost no social issue of the day except foreign policy has been left out. At a current running time of three hours and five minutes with one intermission, the play seems long and lugubrious though it has a great deal to say that is admirable and prescient. The script being used could see a judicious edit and a pruning of topics covered.
When we meet Jewish intellectual Sidney Brustein, he has just closed his failed night spot Walden Pond, a Greenwich Village coffee house created to listen to folk records. Reeling from that debacle, he has just bought a neighborhood newspaper called The Village Crier without telling his wife Iris although he has never run a publication before. She is a struggling actress and dancer, who may not be very good, now working as a waitress but still hoping to break into show business. Their Bohemian and artistic Village friends include Alton Scales (Julian De Niro), an African American activist who is dating Iris’ sister Gloria (Gus Birney), an “international model”, David Ragin (Glenn Fitzgerald), a gay experimental playwright who lives on the floor above them, Max (Raphael Nash Thompson), an abstract artist, and Wally O’Hara (Andy Grotelueschen), a local reform politician. When Wally asks for Sidney’s support for election in their district, Sidney refuses as he has decided not to take sides in his new editorship of The Village Crier. However, Alton convinces him to put an “O’Hara For Reform” poster in his window, against Iris’ objections.
Throughout the play, Sidney and Iris are at dagger’s ends as they are a very mismatched couple. Sidney is extremely well read while Iris has huge gaps in her knowledge. Sidney’s friends talk about Joan Baez, Albert Camus, Stalin, Goethe, Rembrandt and Michelangelo. While Sidney is Jewish, Iris’ older sister Mavis is anti-Semitic as well as bigoted against African Americans, which would include Gloria’s fiancé if she knew about him. Iris does not support Sidney’s artistic endeavors while he is continually putting down her acting. Their marriage goes downhill in the course of the play as Sidney becomes more involved in Wally’s campaign and Iris eventually sells out and goes into television commercials, not what she had in mind as acting. However, nothing is what the naïve and idealistic Sidney thinks: Wally is not the honest politician that he proclaims himself to be and Iris’ sister Gloria is a high-priced call girl, a fact being kept from Alton who hopes to marry her.
What has never been adequately analyzed is the autobiographical elements in this play from Hansberry’s own life. While Black critics attacked the play back in 1964 for featuring a white hero after her breakthrough with A Raisin the Sun, Hansberry’s own husband was the Jewish intellectual Robert Nemiroff with whom she lived in Greenwich Village and who bought a local newspaper in 1953, the year in which they were married. At the time that Hansberry began writing this play in 1959, a hotly contested race for district leader was under way in the Village and a photographer friend of hers hung a poster in her studio window supporting the reform candidate which led to unprovoked threats. Many of Hansberry’s friends and neighbors were Bohemian intellectuals and activists, both artistic and political, similar to the ones depicted in her play. Hansberry may have been too close to the material to see that she had included too much.
Isaac who has appeared on the New York stage six times before including Sam Gold’s production of Hamlet at The Public Theater has the chops to embody the idealistic Sidney. The problem with the way the play is written is that Sidney is all over the place changing gears and courses in each scene. If he seems inconsistent, he shifts in his views too many times to be stable and balanced. Brosnahan, seen on the New York stage on Broadway in Clifford Odets’ The Big Knife and at the New York Theatre Workshop as Desdemona in Sam Gold’s production of Othello with Daniel Craig and David Oyelowo, has the opposite problem. Iris is consistent in wanting something from Sidney he cannot give her while her own talents do not allow her artistic expression. While both Isaac and Brosnahan command the stage when they are there, neither character has our sympathies or our confidence.
The best role in the play is sister Mavis who starts as very unlikeable and then in a later scene reveals her own story and makes her much more sympathetic. Silverman makes the most of her opportunities in this three dimensional role. The other roles seem very underwritten and one suspects they are veiled parodies of people Hansberry and Nemiroff knew in the Village, but Hansberry did not want to make it too obvious.
The massive set designed by the collective dots attempts to show the Brustein apartment, the floor above and the fire escape outside their living room window. It seems like the play: trying to do too many things at once. Brenda Abbandandolo’s costumes are much more successful, particularly with the women’s costumes. Iris’ maturing is reflected in her clothing which becomes more sophisticated as the evening goes on. Leah Loukas’ hair and wig design is particularly effective for the three sisters, circa 1964. The lighting by John Torres captures the different times of day for the play’s seven scenes and three acts.
Rachel Brosnahan and Oscar Isaac in Lorraine Hansberry’s “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” at the BAM Harvey Theater (Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes)
Despite its shortcomings, Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window asks some important questions: what among your beliefs will you be willing to stand up for even if it puts you at odds with your family, friends or community? Sidney Brustein and the play that encompasses him lead a very rich life of the mind. Anne Kauffman’s production attempts to make a case for this play by giving it a vigorous though talky staging while the setting forces the actors to go take pretty much the same places each time they enter. This rare opportunity to see Lorraine Hansberry’s uncompleted play demonstrates that it still needs a further rewrite before it can be declared fully realized.
The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (return engagement: April 25 – July 2, 2023)
James Earl Jones Theatre, 138 W. 48th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call Telecharge at 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.thesignonbroadway.com
Running time: three hours and five minutes including one intermission