The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window

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Photo: Julieta Cervantes Review
Years later and a thousand miles away from Chicago, the characters in Lorraine Hansberry’s “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” are searching for their fulfillment of their own American Dreams, but theirs are not as simple as Walter Lee Younger’s liquor store or his mother Lena’s suburban house. In fact, there’s nothing simple at all about “Sidney Brustein,” which has arrived at Broadway’s James Earl Jones Theatre essentially intact from its sold-out run at BAM earlier this year.

This work, only the second play Hansberry completed before her untimely death in 1965, is overstuffed with a torrent of ideas and ideologies – including frank discussions of racism, homosexuality, prostitution, misogyny -- and a host of characters for whom Hansberry clearly has less sympathy than the protagonists of her masterwork “A Raisin in the Sun.”

Indeed, the men and women who live in and float in and out of the Brusteins’ Greenwich Village apartment (smartly designed by the collective dots) are a generally unpleasant lot, from the self-righteous Negro activist Alton Scales (Julian De Niro) to the “reformist” politician Wally O’Hara (Andy Groteluschen), the holier-than-thou artist Max (Raphael Nash Thompson), and the lovelorn, alcoholic gay playwright David Ragin (an excellent Glenn Fitzgerald).

Still, no one is more unlikeable than the show’s title character (an extraordinary Oscar Isaac), a quasi-intellectual, literally ulcerated blowhard who goes from abject failure (a nightspot where people come to listen to folk records) to muddled compromise (a culturally oriented newspaper that quickly turns into a political propaganda sheet), always sure that he’s right and the world is wrong.

Moreover, despite his Brooklyn origins, Sidney wants to live his life as a modern-day Henry David Thoreau in the woods with his wife, Iris -- a part-Greek, part-Irish, part-Cherokee “mountain girl” -- who has no clear idea of what she wants other than “to matter.”

If we give even half a proverbial fig about this mismatched, constantly battling couple, all credit goes to their celebrated portrayers. Starting at 100 and only periodically dialing his energy back down to 90, Isaac gives us a charismatic Sidney who takes up all the air in the room, suffocating anyone who shares it, especially if they don’t live up to his standards.

Sadly, that not only includes the smarter-than-she-seems Iris (Rachel Brosnahan, whose very good performance might fit better on the small screen) – to whom Sidney can be mindlessly and crudely cruel – but also her older sister, the bigoted Mavis (the fabulous Miriam Silverman, walking away with her two scenes), a woman who has traded personal integrity for marital security.

In fact, the only person Oscar seems to have sympathy for is Iris’ youngest sister, Gloria (Gus Birney), a statuesque blonde who has chosen to make a living as a semi high-class hooker, but whose entanglements with sadistic men have left her both physically and psychologically battered. Her visit to the Brusteins, which occurs late in the play, ends up having enormous consequences for everyone involved.

Perhaps had Hansberry lived longer (or even been able to make revisions during its original run), the play might have had more cohesiveness and focus; one often wonders if Hansberry somehow knew this was her final work and rushed to put every idea in her head down on paper. (The piece has undergone some revisions over the years, many by Hansberry’s husband Robert Nemiroff)

Moreover, this particular production might have benefitted from a different directorial hand than the one provided by the celebrated Anne Kauffman, who is either unable to or has chosen not to tame this unwieldy beast.

Still, it’s not likely that this play will get another production any time soon nor find a finer Sidney than Oscar Isaac, so sign on whatever dotted line you need to see it.
By Brian Scott Lipton

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Open/Close Dates
Opening 5/5/2023
Closing Open-ended

Theatre Info
James Earl Jones Theatre
138 West 48th Street
New York, NY 10036