There’s something of an inside joke tucked into Lorraine Hansberry’s rarely-produced second Broadway play, which director Anne Kauffman has brought to life in a starry revival at BAM. The group of 1960’s would-be idealists, iconoclasts and intellectuals who hang out in the Greenwich Village apartment of Sidney and Iris Brustein (Oscar Isaac and Rachel Brosnahan) include a painter, a prostitute, a protester…and a playwright.
Playwright David Ragin (Glenn Fitzgerald), the Brustein’s upstairs neighbor, is writing a play that Sid describes as two men married to one another and living in a refrigerator. It’s an unlikely-sounding play (surely Hansberry is gently spoofing absurdist theater), but it becomes a commercial hit!
“Christ, Sid, I’m famous” David says. “I have to go out and find out what it’s like to wear it in the streets.”
This might well have been Hansberry’s own reaction after “A Raisin in the Sun” made her relatively rich and famous, the first Black woman playwright on Broadway.
“The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” must have surprised Broadway theatergoers in 1964 who had seen “A Raisin in the Sun” five years earlier, not least because most of its cast of characters are white and Bohemian, but also because it is more freewheeling and humorous than Hansberry’s tightly plotted and largely earnest story of a working class Black family trying to escape a decrepit apartment in the South Side of Chicago.
Her sophomore effort may initially seem to be the work of a completely different writer, but both plays actually reflect Hansberry’s active engagement in the issues of her day (and our day), from racism to feminism to corruption. Still, in light of the work for which she is best known, “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” — in turns witty, silly, awkward, erudite and explosive — remains surprising, although not entirely for the same reasons as it was six decades ago. One of the surprises is that it’s threaded with troubling contradictions, an uncertain mix of ahead-of-its-time and out-of-date.
Is she being politically astute, or confused and confusing, for example, in her treatment of the character David? David is not just writing about gay characters; he is himself gay, something that both he and Hansberry’s play are upfront about – this on a Broadway stage four years before “Boys in the Band” shocked people Off-Broadway!
But Sid attacks David for it: “Please get over the notion that your particular ‘thing’ is something that only the deepest, saddest, most nobly tortured can know about. It ain’t–it’s just one kind of sex–that’s all. And, in my opinion the universe turns regardless.”
This isn’t necessarily homophobic – I’m not sure what it is – and it doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of the playwright, who was herself a closeted lesbian. But over the course of the play a couple of characters, including Sid, freely use the word “fag,” and then later David does something that, if not unambiguously villainous, is certainly unfeeling, and precipitates a tragedy
There is a similar ambiguity in the treatment of Alton Scales (Julian De Niro.) He is a self-proclaimed revolutionary, although no longer a Communist, and the only character in the script who is explicitly Black. Alton delivers one monologue in particular that’s stirring in its condemnation of racism, describing an incident involving his father the railroad porter and his mother the domestic — that reminded me of one of the most moving monologues in all of American theater, when Walter Lee Younger in “A Raisin In The Son” talks to the white man trying to buy him off about his father the laborer, his mother and his wife the domestics (“we are very plain people . . .we are very proud people”) But Alton is telling his story not to express pride but to justify what is in effect an act of cruelty (I won’t spoil the specifics) that’s similar to David’s. And, in another exchange with Alton, Iris makes fun of Alton’s insistence on identifying as Black even though he could pass for white – which is a little shocking for 2023 ears to hear. (Would any white liberal dare say this now?)
Indeed, these jarring moments involving Black and gay characters – especially the sharply different context for Alton’s monologue than Walter Lee Younger’s — made me wonder whether Hansberry was trying deliberately to épater les bourgeois, to shock the middle class Broadway theatergoers. She might be hinting at this effort through the stuffy character of Mavis (Miriam Silverman) Iris’s older sister, a politely racist antisemite who, after listening to Sid and Iris debate about sex, exclaims: “The things you people think you have to talk about!”
That certainly seems the case with Sid and Iris, the ostensible center of the play, around whom the other characters revolve. Neither of them is particularly stable nor reliable. When the play begins, Sid is carrying in crates of restaurant glasses that he’s stealing from his recently failed nightclub. That it failed was no surprise to his friends. He called it Walden Pond and insisted it wasn’t a nightclub; it was “a place just to listen to good folk records.” Without telling his wife, he has already barreled into a new unpromising enterprise, buying the neighborhood weekly newspaper. This prompts a series of scenes involving Wally O’Hara (Andy Grotelueschen), who is running for local office as a reformer to try to get the mob out of the neighborhood, and is seeking Sid’s endorsement; his campaign poster is the sign to which the play’s title refers.
Sid sees himself as a long-time idealist, but now at best ambivalent about it: “Since I was eighteen I’ve belonged to every committee to Save, to Free, to Abolish, Preserve, Reserve and Conserve that ever was. And the result– is that the mere thought of a “movement” to do anything chills my bones!” He tries to care once more, and let’s just say he’s disillusioned once more.
Iris is an aspiring actress who is beginning to acknowledge that she has no talent; she works as a waitress.
Much of the play is taken up with Sid and Iris’s less than healthy relationship, which starts with clever if insulting banter, and happy dancing – made all the more delicious by Isaac and Brosnahan’s timing and their chemistry — and progressing (regressing) to far more sour bickering. They drift apart,but again there is ambiguity: Is Iris asserting her independence, or with her new conformist outfit and a gig in a commercial, is she becoming corrupted? Or is it both?
There is also a storyline involving Iris’ younger sister Gloria (Gus Birney), who is a wholesome-looking, high-end prostitute.
Given the three-hour running time, these various plot strands should have been resolved less abruptly and more credibly. I’d like to think that “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” would have been a better play had Hansberry been able to spend more time with it; she was deathly ill during the run-up to the show and died at the age of 34 on January 12, 1965, two days after it closed.
But there are plenty of reasons for me to delight in this rare revival, some of it historic, some of it aesthetic, some of it personal.
Hansberry lived in Greenwich Village most of her adult life, a few blocks from where my folks moved when they were young, and where I grew up. The designers (from costumer Brenda Abbandandolo to sound designer Bray Poor) do a good job of reproducing what the Village looked and sounded like when Hansberry lived there, reinforcing how recognizable the characters are, how much the references resonate (A character talks about how an intersection on Hudson Street really needed a traffic light — and, after community pressure, the city actually put up two.) Some of her observations even feel prescient. In 1963, the year before the play was on Broadway, Ed Koch ran as a reformer for Democratic Party leader in the Village, defeating Carmine DeSapio, the head of the Tammany Hall machine who had ties to crime boss Frank Costello. Could Koch have been Hansberry’s model for Wally O’Hara? In any case, most of us would agree that, long before the end of his political career, peaking as mayor of New York for three terms, Koch was no longer a reformer, disillusioning his original Village supporters, just like Wally.
Hansberry shared in the life of the Village; she was a committed artist; and, like Sid, she belonged to every committee to Save, to Free, to Abolish, Preserve, Reserve and Conserve that ever was. But she kept perspective on it all, judging by some of the humorous dialogue in “The Sign In Sidney Brustein’s Window.” Here, after beret-wearing Max (Raphael Nash Thompson) shows Alton his latest abstract painting, and says it’s the revolution:
Alton: Max, all I am saying is that obscurity is not the deepest damn thing going, you know? It’s confused–so, like, it’s supposed to be profound? Well, it’s one hell of a revolution if no one can tell what you’re revolting about!
Max: I’m not trying to tell anybody anything.
Alton: And you are definitely succeeding.
The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window
BAM’s Harvey Theater through March 24, 2023
Running time: Three hours including an intermission
Written by Lorraine Hansberry
Directed by Anne Kauffma
Scenic design by dots, costume design by Brenda Abbandandolo, lighting design by John Torres, sound design by Bray Poor, hair and wig design by Leah Loukas, dramaturg Arminda Thomas
Cast: Oscar Isaac (as Sidney Brustein), Rachel Brosnahan (Iris Parodus Brustein), Gus Birney (Gloria Parodus), Julian De Niro (Alton Scales), Glenn Fitzgerald (David Ragin), Andy Grotelueschen (Wally O’Hara),Miriam Silverman (Mavis Parodus), Raphael Nash Thompson (Max)
All performances from March 7 to 12 include Open Captioning
Photo ographs bJulieta Cervantes
“Art is Energy”: Lorraine Hansberry, World Builder presents, some for the first time, photographs, letters, recordings, and published and unpublished writings by Lorraine Hansberry, through April 16