Bedeviled by a clunky title, a long running time, a diffuse storyline, and a general verbosity even by the standards of drama, Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window was not a success when it opened in 1964, and just after it closed in early 1965 the playwright died of cancer, aged thirty-four. Hansberry remains a major figure in the theater for the only other play she wrote that was produced in her lifetime, A Raisin in the Sun from five years earlier, which is still the only play written by a black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize.
With a few caveats, Sidney Brustein’s second Broadway revival (the only previous one, which starred Hal Linden, ran in 1972) is well worth seeing, thanks to waspish dialogue, deeply considered and complex characters, and a theme that is very au courant: Sidney (played with gusto by Oscar Isaac) exemplifies the sophisticated, cultured liberal torn between the attractions of demonstrative radicalism and the more superficial lifestyle that David Brooks later dubbed bourgeois bohemianism. Over the course of the play Sidney wanders from disaffected cynicism to idealistic naivety to a more grounded acceptance of how things work.
At the outset of the play, set in 1964 and located entirely in and around a cluttered apartment, Sidney has just failed in an attempt to run a kind of coffeehouse, bought a weekly underground newspaper he intends to edit, and turned away from politics, to such a degree that he can’t even be bothered to support a reformist friend, Wally O’Hara (Andy Grotelueschen), running for local office on a campaign of cleaning up the corruption in machine politics. His wife, Iris (played in a beautifully modulated performance by Rachel Brosnahan, the star of Amazon’s Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), is an aspiring actress. The two of them are usually fighting, but very often making out. The situation is growing tiresome for her; Sidney is a charming and quick-witted fellow who loves to get out the banjo and put a smile on everyone’s face, but he also lacks purpose in life and is given to flinging caustic insults in every direction. He’s Jewish; she isn’t. Sometimes he derides her as an unlettered hillbilly from Oklahoma, and she sometimes thinks of herself in much the same way, although she’s also half Greek, artistically inclined (at twenty-nine she is struggling to get going as an actress), and a sensitive soul. Everyone in the play is like this—both one thing and another.
Hansberry has filled out the background with an interesting crew of supporting characters, but there are perhaps one or two more than needed. Sidney’s friend Alton (played by Julian De Niro, son of Robert) is a bookstore Communist who could probably pass for white but identifies as black; Iris’s older sister Mavis (Miriam Silverman) is an upscale, uptight hausfrau whom Sidney loves to tease for being a square but who has far more layers than it appears. Alton is dating Iris’s beautiful younger sister Gloria (Gus Birney) but doesn’t know she’s a high-class prostitute. Sid and Iris’s upstairs neighbor David (Glenn Fitzgerald) is trying to earn a living writing avant-garde plays.
The entire first act of this longish play (it runs two hours and forty-five minutes) is devoted to aimless chattering about everyone’s foibles, with urgent discussions heading off in many directions but nothing like a plot to provide a structural foundation for all of the talk. The main source of discussion is Sidney’s “ostrichism” (awkward word), a term of Alton’s to refer to those who decline to be political activists. “I no longer want to exhort anybody about anything,” Sidney says. But there’s a lot of knowing New York humor to keep things entertaining. “No, that’s not a mistake,” Sidney tells someone. “Fourth Street does cross Eleventh Street.”
It isn’t until well into the second act that something like a story kicks in, via the somewhat trite figure of the innocent (Gloria) who gets caught up in the harshness of reality. Sidney comes to symbolize some of the forces that will push Gloria to a dangerous place, via a series of developments that feel contrived rather than made dramatically inevitable by character.
So it’s a flawed play that, had Hansberry lived, might well have gone on to be wrangled into a more manageable form by its author. But as it is, it’s a lively and provocative one. And thanks to well-rounded portrayals and the enduring nature of the argument between liberals and radicals, it feels much fresher than most mid-Sixties entertainment.