Rachel Brosnahan and Oscar Isaac in The sign in the window of Sidney Brustein.
Photo: Julieta Cervantes
What’s the difference between caring and pretending to care? This might seem like a novel concern in the age of internet activism, when privileged people rush to deploy momentary hashtags or black squares, then later complain of “ally fatigue” or blame each other. signaling each other for virtue. There is always the possibility that what looks like compassion is just a representation of it, that a slogan has no commitment behind it. Of course, there is nothing new in the problem of intention and action. by Lorraine Hansberry Sidney Brustein’s sign Windowfirst performed on Broadway in 1964, returns to BAM in 2023 to prove itself as the great forgotten play on display dynamics.
The sign in question hangs outside the window of a Greenwich Village apartment owned by Sidney Brustein, an apathetic countercultural Jewish intellectual who has just unsuccessfully tried to open a bar called Walden Pond. “Your problem,” his friend Alton (Julian De Niro) teases, “is that you admire the bad sides of Thoreau,” that is, he loves aesthetics but ignores political commitments. Played by Oscar Isaac, the current Crown Prince of Woolen Idols, Sidney is full of exuberant romantic enthusiasm but little following. He plays the banjo, dreams of a cabin in the woods, and fetishizes the country aspects of his Oklahoma-born goyish actress wife, Iris (Rachel Brosnahan, in Mrs. Maisel’s estate but with a much wider range of exposures ). His latest project, after the collapse of Walden Pond, is a local newspaper, a Voice replacement called on village crier. At first he wants Crier to stay out of politics, but soon he’s excited about a new reformist candidate named Wally O’Hara (Andy Grotelueschen). So, to Iris’ distress, an approval rises. Sidney threw himself behind a cause, and the question is whether he will stick with it and, later, whether the cause itself is worth the effort.
The sign itself looms large, a large white sheet with black lettering decrying “bossism” that hangs over the fire escape outside Brustein’s stage apartment (crampy for the time, enviable by today’s standards, designed by the Dots Group). The banner sticks in the spirit even as the play itself strays from this plot to introduce a cast of characters into Sidney and Iris’ circle. Hansberry wrote Sidney Brustein after the success of A raisin in the sun, which had made her, at 29, the first black woman to have a play on Broadway. Here, she shifted her focus from a black family in Chicago to the concerns of artists and activists she knew and lived with in the Village. The play’s dialogue is full of in-the-moment concerns and references to everyone from Castro to Camus. What’s the best way to protest anti-gay sex laws? How to make peace with action in the grip of existentialism? What about the possibility of nuclear annihilation? Also, does it sell for starring in TV commercials?
When Sidney Brustein premiered in 1964, it was received lukewarm by critics and audiences alike, possibly because Hansberry was working outside of his usual path, writing mostly about white characters. This first Broadway production, which starred Rita Moreno, received support from fellow Hansberry artists to make it work, but closed, after 101 performances, days before her death at age 34. After a single Broadway revival in 1972, the play mostly went into the vault. , eclipsed by A raisin in the sun. Anne Kauffman, leading this revival after directing another production of it in Chicago in 2016, makes a compelling case for bringing Sidney Brustein in the barrel. This version of the play, compiled and revised from various iterations of the work, has a solid three-hour, three-act tragic core with Sidney (whom Kauffman likes to call a “Jewish hamlet” in the press) in a self-destructive play . descent.
Yet Hansberry resists a structure as simple as that. The drama has all the compelling restlessness of a second album trying not to hit the same beats as an acclaimed debut album. Through David (Glenn Fitzgerald), a gay playwright upstairs who writes something about two men living in a refrigerator, Hansberry references more experimental work – another character jokingly calls him Jean Genet – and seems to put stage an argument with herself about the value of sticking to realism. To that end, both in writing and in Kauffman’s direction, the texture of some scenes dissolves: Sidney and Iris have a conversation on a rooftop as if they’ve gone into the woods, and in the second act, a few actors gather in front of the audience on folding chairs to watch the action. Hansberry seems on her way to something else, a future work that, had she lived, might have gotten even more abstract or gone in another direction.
Unlike those moments, some plot engines are more worn, especially the arc between revolutionary Alton and Iris’ sister, Gloria (Gus Birney), whose jet-setting lifestyle soon turns out to be bought off. and paid. Both the tragic white passing idealist and the tragic sex worker are predictable, acting more like symbols than people. (Among an evenly strong cast of actors, it doesn’t help that De Niro is the least comfortable on stage.) Better off are characters with more contradictions, like Sidney and Iris, whose fights and jousting Isaac and Brosnahan seem to revel. Just when you can sympathize with either of them, Hansberry gives this character something awful to say, and the polite Brooklyn audience winces (which the actors also seem to appreciate). Miriam Silverman, as Iris’ uptown sister Mavis, who married respectably, excels at this gamble, playing pitiful and understanding in one angle, then vicious in another.
Hansberry’s room holds people like Mavis, Sidney, and Iris up to the light for inspection. What to do with these so-called selfish and selfish allies? Then, like someone who cuts a roughly hewn rock, she fixes the actions of her plot there. The play is harsh, but by reducing its hero, it reveals something hopeful. For Sidney, putting up a sign isn’t much on its own, but it pushes him forward, like a Greek tragedy pushes everyone to calamity and then to clarity of sight. Hansberry has this hope that, with a gesture, a streak of real engagement could be revealed to Sidney like a vein of gold.
The sign in the window by Sidney Brustein is at the BAM Harvey Theater until March 24.