‘The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,’ Lorraine Hansberry’s Mastery of Ideas in a Superb Production
Oscar Isaac’s Sidney Brustein in Lorraine Hansberry’s most ambitious play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (directed by Anne Kauffman) never catches a break. Hansberry’s everyman layman’s intellectual is in pursuit of expressing his creative genius and achieving exploits he can be proud of. When we meet him at the top of Hansberry’s masterpiece, which is full of sardonic wisdom, sage philosophy and political realism, Sidney is a flop looking for a reprieve. This revival, first produced on Broadway in 1964, was tightened for this Broadway revival (one noticeable end sequence with Gloria was shaved, not to the play’s betterment). Currently running at the James Earl Jones Theatre with one intermission, the production boasts the same stellar cast in its transfer from its sold out run at BAM’s Harvey Theatre in Brooklyn. The production is in a limited run, ending in July.
It is to the producers’ credit that they risked bringing the play to a Broadway audience, who may not be used to the complications, the numerous thematic threads, the actualized brilliance of unique characterizations and their interrelationships, and Hansberry’s overall indictment of the culture and society. Sign is a companion piece to her award-winning Raisin in the Sun. It explores the root causes why the Younger family is where it is socially and economically. Vitally, it examines the political underpinnings of institutional oppression and discrimination via reform movements, symbolized by the efforts of Brustein and friends who promote the reform candidacy of Wally O’Hara.
To focus her indictment of the perniciousness of political and social oppression, Hansberry examines the vanguard of reformists, Greenwich Village artists, activists and journalists who are emotionally/philosophically ready to make social/economic change of the type that the Younger family in Raisin in the Sun yearns for. However, these Greenwich Village mavericks are the least equipped tactically to sidestep co-optation and the political cynicism of the power-brokers. They realize too late that the money men will fight them to the death to maintain a status quo which inevitably destroys the vulnerable and keeps families like the Youngers and drug addict Willie Johnson struggling to survive.
The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is timeless in its themes and its characterizations. When we measure it in light of current social trends, it is fitting that the play transcends the history of the 1960s in its prescience and reveals political tropes we experience today. Additionally, it suggests how far society has declined to the point where cultural and political co-optation (a principal theme) have been institutionalized via media that skews the truth unwittingly. The result is that large swaths of our nation remain oblivious to their exploitation and dehumanization, ignorant that they are the pawns of political parties, who promise reform then deliver regression. In short they, like Sidney Brustein and his friends, are seduced to hope in a better world that reform politicians say they will deliver. But when they win, through a plurality of votes from a diverse population, they renege on their promises and continue to do what their “owners” want, which is to “screw” the little people and deprive them of power and a “place at the table.”
Hansberry’s setting of Greenwich Village is specifically selected as one of the hottest, most forward-thinking, “happening” areas in the nation. Brustein’s apartment is the focal point where we meet representative types of those found in sociopolitical/cultural reform movements. His community of friends are activists who believe their friend and candidate Wally O’Hara (Andy Grotelueschen), is positioned to overturn the Village’s entrenched “political machine.” Sidney, reeling from his bankrupted club, which characterized his cultural/intellectual ethos (idealistically named Walden Pond after Henry David Thoreau’s book), purchases a flagging newspaper (The Village Crier) to once again indulge his passion for creative expression. He does this unbeknownst to his wife Iris (Rachel Brosnahan), a budding second-wave feminist who waitresses to support them financially. She chafes at her five-year marriage to Sidney, shaking off his definitions and the identities he places on her, one of which is his “Mountain Girl.”
Activist and theoretical Communist (separated from the genocidal Stalinist despotism) Alton (Julian De Niro), drops in with O’Hara to encourage Sidney to join the crusade to elect O’Hara with the Crier’s endorsement. Sidney declaims their persuasive rhetoric and assures them that he will never get involved in political activism again. However, as events progress, his attitude changes. We note his friends, including artist illustrator Max (Raphael Nash Thompson), stir him to support O’Hara with his excellent articles. Sidney, mocked by Iris about his failures, is swept up in the campaign. When he hangs a large sign in his window that endorses O’Hara, his adherence to push a win for the “champion of the people” increases in fervency.
The sign symbolizes his hope and his seduction into the world of misguided activism, but its meaning changes over the course of the play. Hansberry doesn’t reveal the exact moment that Sidney decides to take up the “losing cause” after he disavowed it. However, his fickle nature and passion to be enmeshed in something “significant” with his friends helps to sway him.
In the first acts of the play, Hansberry introduces us to the players and reveals the depth of her characterizations as each of the characters widens their arc of development by the conclusion. We note the development of Mavis (Miriam Silverman), Iris’ uptown, bourgeois, housewife sister, who is married to a prosperous husband and is raising two sons. We also meet David Ragin (Glenn Fitzgerald), the Brustein’s gay, nihilistic, absurdist playwright friend, who lives in the apartment above theirs and is on the verge of success. Both Mavis and David, like Sidney’s other friends, twit him about Walden Pond’s failure. Mavis and Iris are antithetical in values and Mavis views her sister and brother-in-law as Bohemian specimens to be observed and secretly derided as entertainment. We discover Mavis’ bigotry when she opposes the union of their sister Gloria (Gus Birney), a high class call girl, to Alton, the young light-skinned Black friend.
The genius of this work is in Hansberry’s dialogue and the intricacies of the characterizations. It is as if Hansberry spins them like tops and enjoys the trajectory she creates for them, which ultimately is surprising and sensitively drawn. Organically driven by their own desires, we follow Sidney and Iris’ family machinations, pegged against the backdrop of a political campaign that could redefine each of their lives so that they could better fulfill their dreams and purpose. However, the campaign never rises to the sanctity of what a true democratic, civic, body politic should be. Indeed, the political system has been usurped in a surreptitious coup that the canny voter “pawns” are clueless about.
Tragically, instead of political power being used to combat the destructive forces Hansberry outlines, some of which are discrimination, drugs, law-enforcement corruption, economic inequity and other issues that impact the Brustein’s and their friends’ lives, O’Hara and his handlers have other plans. But first, they cleverly convince the voters a win is unlikely and they pump them up to believe in the possibility of an O’Hara success that would be earth-shattering and revolutionary. This, we discover later, is a canard. The “revolutionary coup” can never occur because the political hacks control everything, including Sidney’s paper which they exploit to foment support for O’Hara. How Hansberry gradually reveals this process and ties it in with the relationships-between Iris and Sidney, Alton and Gloria, Iris and Mavis and the other friends-is a fabric woven moment by moment through incredible dialogue that pops with quips, peasant philosophy, seasoned wisdom, and brilliant moments that evanesce all too quickly.
By the conclusion, the solidity of the characters’ hopes we’ve seen in the beginning have been dashed to fold in on themselves. Both Iris and Sidney learn to reevaluate their relationship with each other and their misapplication of self-actualization, which allowed a tragedy to happen. Likewise, Alton’s inflexibility about his own approach to his place in an exclusionary, oppressive culture ends up contributing to a tragedy that might have been prevented. In one way or another, these characters particularly, along with David’s self-absorbed nihilism, contribute to Gloria’s death.
Symbolically, Hansberry points out that love and concern for other human beings is paramount. Too often, relatives, friends and cultural influences contribute to daily tragedies because human nature’s weaknesses in “missing the signs” contort such love and service to others. Ironically, politics, whose idealized mission should be to reform and make the culture more humane, decent and caring, is often hijacked by the powerful for their own agendas to produce money and more power and control. The resulting misery and every day tragedies accumulate until there is recognition, and the fight begins to overcome the malevolent, retrograde forces that O’Hara and his cronies represent.
This, Sidney vows to do with his paper and Iris’ help in a powerful speech to O’Hara proclaiming a key theme. To be alive and not spiritually, soulfully dead, one must be against the O’Haras of the world and the forces of corruption. To support them is to support death and dead things. To recognize how the power-brokers peddle death, one must discern their lies and avoid being lured into their desperate cycle of destruction, which they control to keep the populace oppressed, hopeless and suicidal.
The actors’ ensemble work is superior. Both Isaac and Brosnahan set each other off with authenticity. Miriam Silverman as Mavis hits all the ironies of the self-deprecating housewife, who has suppressed her own tragedies to carry on. And Julian De Niro’s speech about why he cannot love or marry Gloria is a powerhouse of cold, calculating, but wounded rationality. Hansberry has crafted complex, nuanced human beings and the actors have filled their shoes to effect their emotional core in a moving, insightful production that startles and awakens.
The play must be seen for its actors, direction, and the coherent artistic team, which perfectly effects the director’s vision for this production. These artists include dots (scenic design), Brenda Abbandandolo (costume design), John Torres (lighting design), Bray Poor (sound design), and Leah Loukas (hair & wig design).
This must-see production runs under three hours. For tickets and times go to their website https://thesignonbroadway.com/