The Broadway Theatre Review: Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window
Many told me that they didn’t quite understand what this play was trying to say or what its main focus was. What was its point of view, and what was it attempting to unpack today? But what I found myself immersed in was some kind of parallel process connecting to but not aligning itself directly with Lorraine Hansberry’s other signature play, A Raisin in the Sun. From the first visual, it appears they don’t share too much in common. The living space looks nothing like the other as it breathes a different spacial air, which might be the point of Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, but somewhere there is a connection. They said, at the time, that she was moving into a different lane in her writing, but as the play moves forward into the world of Iris and Sidney Brustein, the structuring and the types of people that wander into their home seem to me to elicit some similar themes, types, and ideals, although only abstractly, and without hitting the same marks.
Both are spaces that don’t exactly fit, and change is needed and required in order to thrive, saddled with dysfunction, failure, but also determination. “Dance for me,” he pleads, and she does, reluctantly, wishing to also be seen for something more, desired for her opinions especially when he reaches, most desperately, for her. The complex engagement has been set on course, as Oscar Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis“; Public’s Hamlet) and Rachel Brosnahan (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel“; NYTW’s Othello) unleash their Sidney Brustein and Iris Parodus Brustein, the two married idealists, into the world, colliding against one another with a charged chemistry. Living out their dreams, or at least trying to, in a Village apartment, Sidney’s failures fill the corners of the space, and even though the last was not a “nightclub“, the remains of its death can’t be denied or ignored.
But there is a bond that lives inside those walls, and it is just as powerful, even in its discomfort. Their connective tissue radiates with pent-up tension and friction that can and eventually will make or break a relationship apart. Sidney, filled with optimism and idealist energy, is trying to unpack his last disappointment and unroll his new, with a shrug and a shot, when Sidney enters the room, stripping down to her white stockings as if the clothes she is has on are burning her skin. Now that’s a sign of things to come. She practices a few pliés with a casual indifference that seems to stoke Sidney’s furnace, lighting a fire to his passion and his casual disrespect, that only grows with each passing minute of Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. It’s a tour de force, these two, folding themselves together while jabbing hard at one another as if to see who will break first. Sidney doesn’t seem to see how cruel he can be, treating his remarks with the same disrespect her treats his wife, but we feel the sharpness of the slap and know full well that he’s pushing her closer and closer to the edge. But we just don’t know what is on the other side of that cliff.
He has, unbeknownst to Iris, bought himself a local paper, and although he trumpets himself as an editor who will stay away from politics, this decree doesn’t last long, much like many of his other vows. This is a play that swirls in the world of politics and power though, and deceit, and as we side-watch a man up in the darkness above toil at a typewriter, we wonder where the writing of this play is going to take us, and why. It’s a hodge podge of ideas, crammed together in literal and emotional talk, etched in idealism and leftist reform, and as directed with a sharpness, most of the time, by a determined Anne Kauffman (ATC’s The Bedwetter), The Sign… mostly flies true, even in its overt wordiness as the winds shifts and occasionally blow weak and unclear throughout its almost three hour running time.
The analysis of Iris, and the carefully constructed abstractionism of herself, are a complicated mess of tireless action and desperation, with both putting so much energy into creating connection at all costs. It’s an uncomfortable dance to watch, especially when Sidney reverts to sharp slices of cruelty that are pointed directly at the softest most vulnerable parts of his wife. It’s a game that doesn’t sit well with any of us, especially these days, and with the cornucopia of characters that fly in and out of that apartment, designed meticulously by dots (RTC’s You Will Get Sick), with exacting lighting by John Torres (Public’s A Bright Room Called Day) and a precise sound design by Bray Poor (Broadway’s Take Me Out), the sharpness of the time and the frame feels problematic and disconcerting, but less dangerous as I’m sure it did when the play first appeared on stage in 1964.
The chemistry of the two leads is palpable and unique, pushing the piece into the frame most powerfully, but it is magnified beyond compare when the uniquely different sister of Iris, the uptown rich Mavis, deftly portrayed by Miriam Silverman (LCT’s JUNK), makes her entrance with a dress and an attitude that at first seems at odds with the room. Silverman is electrifying as a presence, definitely deserving the Tony nomination she received for peeling off layers when required, before reapplying her facade to perfection. “How smug it is here in Bohemia“, she states, before we start to see and hear the lines of connection to what’s underneath her sister, even if Iris doesn’t want to see it herself. The dress does fit, eventually, but not to Sidney’s liking. I’m not sure he really wants to see his wife clearly to begin with. He just wants their creation of ideas played out to a soundtrack and dance for his personal enjoyment.
Brosnahan delivers a character that is almost overflowing with an interior life that is epic and deeply felt. When she noticed that something has come in or gone out of their fighting, it fills in the asides with darkness and discomfort. She plunges deeper and harder into everything, and is sadly mostly absent as the play rolls towards its difficult end. It’s a strongly formed formula though, matched mostly by Isaac’s impulsive Sidney who just can’t help but attack her most vulnerable parts all too frequently and with such precision. The rest of the cast fills out the intellectually aligned space with due diligence that registers. As the gay playwright, David Ragin, played solidly by Glenn Fitzgerald (TNG’s The True), writing abstractionisms upstairs to a beat all on his own, the actor fills out David’s role as a reflective surface with a sure-footedness that slowly unravels as he gains more success than maybe he can handle.
Inside Sidney’s circle, there is the combustible Alton Scales, played true by Julian De Niro (Showtime’s “The First Lady“), where a more complicated ideological argument unravels around the idea of love and companionship with Iris’s other more wayward sister, Gloria Parodus. Portrayed by Gus Birney (59E59’s Connected), she shows up late to the party but manages to rachet up the drunken drama suddenly and spontaneously. It’s a devastating turn, and even though the two loverbirds never actually connect on that stage, their involvement pushes forth complex observations about America that leave you struggling to understand and process our deep emotional response to it all, on numerous levels of complications and assumptions.
But let’s not forget who and what The Sign… is promoting, all around the buying and the selling of America’s soul as personified by Wally O’Hara, wisely portrayed by Andy Grotelueschen (Broadway’s Tootsie), as the politician that asks Sidney for much more than he initially is willing to give. Yet somewhere in the play, it is given almost wholeheartedly to a sold man who doesn’t stand for what he first says. It’s a hard pill to swallow, causing the world to crack down the middle and crash in a way that everyone saw coming, except for Sidney. The chorus is always watching though, not changing anything, but laying it all out for us to see and digest, if willing.
In a fantastic historical Playbill insert, a testament to the theatrical movement that this play represented is reprinted. It’s a rallying cry, written by Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, originally printed in The New York Times on November 24, 1964, to the theatrical community begging them to see this show now. It praises the play full stop: “We laughed, we cried, we thought.” Such powerful words for this fascinatingly timely play after being called “a sprawling contrast” to A Raisin in the Sun. When it first played on Broadway, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window had an extraordinary run of 101 performances. Yet, the play, without its knowing, was performed for the last time on Sunday, January 10th, 1965. Two days later, Lorraine Hansberry died of pancreatic cancer and “in respect to the artist, the theater remained dark that night, never again to resume performances.”
It’s a stunningly well formed revival, drenched in grand performances with a true purpose. The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window flies proud over the James Earl Jones Theatre marquee, bringing us together to hear the rally cry for change and connection. But I wonder if the cast of politically charged characters, costumed most brilliantly by Brenda Abbandandolo (Signature’s Octet), brings forth a current formula that fully resonates. It definitely unpacks an idea that needs restoring, demanding more from all in regard to power, politics, and morality. It might not be as illuminating as what Brooks and Bancroft were talking about back in 1964, but this revival finds its mark and sticks to it. Mainly because of a handful of excellent performances, delivering on some principled ideology that maybe needs some reminding.
[…] Notable omissions were Laura Linney in MTC’s Summer 1976, even as co-star Jessica Hecht was nominated, LaTanya Richardson Jackson failed to be nominated for directing the revival of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, and Oscar Isaac and Rachel Brosnahan did not get recognized for their work in the late arriving The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. […]
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[…] The Broadway productions considered in full during this cycle are (in order of opening) Macbeth, The Kite Runner, Into the Woods, Leopoldstadt, 1776, Death of a Salesman, The Piano Lesson, Topdog/Underdog, Walking with Ghosts, Almost Famous, Kimberly Akimbo, Mike Birbiglia: The Old Man & the Pool, & Juliet, A Christmas Carol, KPOP, A Beautiful Noise, Ohio State Murders, Some Like It Hot, The Collaboration, Pictures from Home, A Doll’s House, Parade, Bob Fosse’s Dancin’, Bad Cinderella, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Life of Pi, Shucked, Fat Ham, Camelot, Peter Pan Goes Wrong, The Thanksgiving Play, Prima Facie, Good Night, Oscar, Summer, 1976, New York, New York, and The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. […]