Oscar Isaac and Rachel Brosnahan bring love and revolution to life in ‘The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window’
It was one of the more bewildering sophomore efforts by a major writer: Five years after she debuted her path-breaking hit, “A Raisin in the Sun,” on Broadway in 1959, Lorraine Hansberry unfurled “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.”
The differences between the two plays could hardly have been more striking: The first traced the struggles of a multigenerational Black family in Chicago to rise into the American middle class, while the second depicted the crumbling marriage of two white bohemians in Greenwich Village. Both were deeply personal plays inspired by the world Hansberry had come from and the one she occupied, respectively. But audiences and critics weren’t ready for this switcheroo; it was as if Tennessee Williams had followed “A Streetcar Named Desire” with a play about New England fishermen. And while “Raisin”has since become a deserved staple of the American theater canon, “Sign”has languished as a seldom revived curiosity.
Directed with boldness and sensitivity by Anne Kauffman, “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window" viscerally captures a sense of unsettledness, both in the play’s bones and in the souls of its unhappy characters.
A lovingly crafted new revival of “Sign” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music makes a fresh case for reconsideration, even as it exposes some glaring faults. It’s a paradoxical play: At its best, it has a startling emotional clarity, through which we glimpse bracing, even eerily prophetic insights into marriage, activism and economic class at a moment when the full ferment of the 1960s was only just getting started. But “Sign” also very often feels like a play of its time in a bad way, with an odd mix of dramatic cliché and queasy experimentalism.
Hansberry, who died just two days after the original production closed in early 1965, didn’t feel she was done with “Sign,” and it shows. To its credit, the new revival, directed with boldness and sensitivity by Anne Kauffman, viscerally captures a sense of unsettledness, both in the play’s bones and in the souls of its unhappy characters.
These include Sidney (Oscar Isaac), a dyspeptic intellectual who runs a small left-wing weekly from his apartment, and Iris (Rachel Brosnahan), his wife, an aspiring actress. The plot loosely follows Sidney’s advocacy for a local councilman’s campaign against New York City’s infamous machine politics—hence the window sign of the title, with the slogan “Wipe Out Bossism”—alongside Iris’s efforts to uncouple from the domineering Sidney and his quixotic ventures. Indeed, Iris’s struggle for self-respect in the face of her husband’s solipsism and condescension emerges as a major throughline in the show’s first half, with Iris resembling a sort of latter-day Nora Helmer, the dissatisfied heroine of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” Brosnahan, best known for playing a more assertive woman of roughly the same period in the TV series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” gives the sadly underestimated Iris a restless, resonant reading.
But Hansberry is ultimately more invested in her title character’s agonizing journey between the poles of idealism and cynicism. Sidney’s marital spats with Iris, along with a cluster of other subplots and supporting characters, are eventually relegated to battles in his larger internal war. He is a fascinating character, marbled unevenly with flaws and charms, and it is easy to see why Isaac took time off from his busy movie career to tackle the role’s contradictions. Something of a specialist in playing deeply unsentimental yet sneakily soulful men, Isaac takes a similar approach to this volatile character who can’t leave an argument alone, especially if it’s with himself.
“The world is about to crack down the middle, and we have to change or fall into the crack.”
Like the play bearing his name, Sidney has moments of flashing insight and naked yearning amid all the whining, cajoling, clowning and drunken rationalizing. In one extraordinary passage, he sits on the roof of his apartment building clutching a banjo while Iris sits on their couch below, as they revisit a quiet but pivotal dispute at the heart of their marriage: He craves the purported Thoreauvian simplicity of the wild, while Iris, raised in rural poverty, nurses no such illusions about the state of nature, vastly preferring the sparkling conviviality of city life. If it did nothing more than bring this equivocal theatrical moment to life, this “Sign” revival would be a keeper.
In another remarkable scene, Sidney is shocked into relative silence by his sister-in-law Mavis (Miriam Silverman), a bourgeois housewife whom Hansberry both skewers for her bigotry and employs as a foil for the bohemians’ own unthinking prejudices. As Mavis talks matter-of-factly about the understanding she has with her husband’s mistress, we glimpse one unglamorous way the sexual revolution will play out in the coming decades: as transaction, not transcendence.
Duly sobered into reflection, Sidney soon delivers what feels, at least in retrospect, like the show’s big line. When Mavis again voices her racist disapproval of her sister marrying a Black activist friend of the Brusteins, Sidney replies, more in sorrow than anger, “The world is about to crack down the middle, and we have to change or fall into the crack.”
It is among the bittersweet pleasures of this new revival, which arrives at a moment when the fissures of our nation only seem to have widened, that in moments like this “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” suggests so many roads not taken—not only for Hansberry, who was just 34 when she died and so would not live to see, let alone write about, the upheaval she presciently predicted, but for our body politic and our culture. What if, as Sidney Brustein seems to vow in the play’s resolute final moments, the revolution we so manifestly need arose from our sense of love for and responsibility to each other, rather than in terms of a zero-sum conflict? What if, conversely, this rosy vision of mutual aid were also clear-eyed about the obstacles that must be removed from its path, both internal and external? What if, in short, class struggle could liberate us all?
That may not fit on a sign, but I’d hang it in my window.