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Theatre in Review: The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (Brooklyn Academy of Music)

Rachel Brosnahan, Oscar Isaac. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

When The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window opened in 1964, New York Times reviewer Howard Taubman noted that it "lacked concision and cohesion. One remembers isolated passages rather than the work as a whole." Fine; you won't get an argument out of me. But what isolated passages! Writing at the very end of her cruelly short life, Lorraine Hansberry poured everything on her mind into this rangy, unruly, bursting-at-the-seams drama. Yes, it's much too long. Yes, it often veers into cul-de-sacs from which one fears it may not return. Every so often, the action stops cold so somebody can offer a remarkably sententious speech. You can pick at it all you want, and the pickings will be lush.

But it's impossible not to be in awe of the playwright's intelligence and ambition. If Sidney Brustein is a folly -- a case that you can easily make -- it's a magnificent one. Hansberry set out to diagnose a sick society and passage after passage thrums with her outrage over "ostrichism," the practice of blithely ignoring a world going to hell in a handcart. In this life, she seems to say, you're either in or you're out. If it's the former, you can't help being an agitator; if it's the latter, you're on the killing road.

Hansberry populates the stage with a legion of cranky, contrary, passionate characters, all of them noted for their scalding candor. Sidney (Oscar Isaac) is a kind of Greenwich Village Don Quixote, pursuing one wild enthusiasm after another, including a failed coffee house and now a neighborhood newspaper -- never mind that he knows nothing about publishing. Insisting he is apolitical, he will soon be taking a stand against the local machine, setting himself up for a profound disillusionment. He is married to Iris (Rachel Brosnahan), a failed actress clinging to a sense of herself as an artist -- wait for the dance that expresses her Greek-Irish-Cherokee heritage -- but who, at twenty-nine, is beginning to wonder what, if anything comes next.

They're deeply in love and they are falling apart. Sidney, clutching his ulcerated stomach like a talisman, is a ruthless, inveterate truth-teller, and Iris, growing tired of her assigned role as his kooky wife, often gets caught in the crossfire. "Why don't you just hit me with your fist sometime?" she wonders, eyeing him like a wounded animal. "The world needs insults!" he insists, ashamed but defiant. But when Iris is ready to walk out -- and sell out, sucking up to a producer for a well-paying spot in a dishonest television commercial -- it's Sidney who is devastated.

Orbiting this embattled pair is a motley crew of nonconformists. Alton, Sidney's closest friend is a Black activist whose light skin is its own source of pain, leading him to commit a terrible, self-wounding betrayal. Dropping in from downstairs is David, a gay theatre-of-the-absurd playwright, wasting his time on damaged young men and pretending not to care about anything. There's also Wally, a schlumpy, glad-handing political candidate who may or not represent reform; Max, an abstract painter who redesigns Sidney's newspaper so thoroughly that nobody can read it; and Gloria, Iris' sister, a high-class call girl with the physical and psychological bruises to show for it. Watching from the sidelines is Mavis, Iris and Gloria's haute-bourgeois sibling, perfectly coiffed, impeccably turned out, and dripping with disapproval. "The things you people think you have to talk about!" she clucks, not without reason.

The talk is nonstop and usually stimulating; as soon as somebody takes a position, someone else -- perhaps two or three -- is ready to demolish it. For the liveliness of its conversation and its penetrating view of the Village in its bohemian heyday, it is a play to treasure. Still, there's no getting around its myriad problems. The spine of the drama is the collapse of Sidney and Iris' marriage and their flirtations with different forms of corruption. But the other characters keep hijacking the action for purposes of their own, a practice that threatens to turn the play into a panel discussion on any number of issues. Also, certain subplots don't make much sense: Would Alton, an ardent advocate of the downtrodden, really fall for Gloria, with her expensive wardrobe and breathless, Barbie-doll manner? (It could happen, but it needs more explanation; strangely, the play never arranges to have them onstage at the same time.) When Sidney discovers that he has become a pawn of the powers that be, the news is rendered in such vague terms that one can hardly make it out; the revelation also makes him look almost ludicrously naïve. The climactic booze-and-liquor party that marks Sidney's big moment of moral abandonment plays like something from an overheated Hollywood melodrama of the period.

And yet, Hansberry's writing is so passionate, so full of life and love and fury, that you can easily stare down the play's flaws. It's like a grand opera with a creaky libretto but plenty of stunning arias, among them Alton's blistering account of growing up poor, getting by on the leavings his housemaid mother cadged from her employers; Mavis' clinical dissection of her sterile marital arrangement; and Gloria's anguished denunciation of the lover who fails to rescue her from herself.

In this lovingly rendered staging by Anne Kauffman, the best bits are allowed to shine brightly. As Sidney and Iris, Isaac and Brosnahan have a sizzling chemistry that lends a sting to their inability to stop hurting each other. Julian DeNiro is a laconically amusing Alton ("You're gonna wear out your ass sitting on that fence, man," he tells Sidney at one point) until he bares his long-checked rage over an unequal world. Glenn Fitzgerald is surprisingly touching as David, who has retreated into a world of icy abstractions but yearns for attention and affection. Gus Birney is heartbreaking as Gloria, a glossy pinup girl who knows her time is running out. Andy Grotelueschen is genial as Wally and Raphael Nash Thompson is amusingly grumpy as Max. Taking a plum part and running triumphantly with it is Miriam Silverman as Mavis, an unhappy housewife with a deadly eye for hypocrisy; commenting on her messed-up marriage, she says, "There are no squares, Sidney. Believe me when I tell you, everybody is his own hipster."

A strong sense of place is crucial to the piece and the scenic design by the collective known as DOTS supplies it in spades, mounting a detailed naturalistic apartment interior on an exposed stage structure with a rooftop to which the characters sometimes repair. It's a highly inventive piece of work, lit with enormous attention to detail and strong color sense by John Torres, especially in the surreal party sequence. The period-accurate costumes by Brenda Abbandandolo clearly denote various class and social division. The sound design by Bray Poor includes several apt folk music and jazz selections in addition to numerous ambient effects.

The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window is its own category, a work that falls far short of classic status yet leaves an unforgettable impression and not just as a fascinating time capsule. Hansberry, just this side of the grave, was possessed of a tremendous fighting spirit and, clearly, she had so much more to say. Her play remains a powerful reminder that the status quo is never good enough. As Sidney warns, "The slogans of capitulation can kill! Every time we say, 'Live and let live' -- death triumphs!" You've got to live, and care, in the moment, the playwright says, a belief that she practiced to the last. --David Barbour

(3 March 2023)

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