The BAM Harvey Theater revival of Lorraine Hansberry's The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, a panorama of early 1960s West Village bohemia, the Bushwick of yesteryear, offers its talented cast many opportunities to show their comic timing, though the production cannot overcome the play's flaws entirely.
Hansberry's 1959 breakthrough A Raisin in the Sun (just given a fresh production at The Public in 2022) won the Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play. Thirty-four when The Sign opened on Broadway in 1964, she died of cancer early in the run, and the play soon closed. It was staged at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2014 and Chicago's Goodman Theatre in 2016 but never again in New York. Director Anne Kauffman and dramaturg Michael Paller constructed the script for this production from four extant versions.
The well-rounded characters in The Sign are full of hopes and disappointments, desperate to be loved, frustrated by society's inequalities and injustices, compromised by living in a compromised world. The social issues are familiar, despite the lapse of sixty years: political corruption, alcoholism and drug abuse, homophobia, racial prejudice, and sexual exploitation.
It is set in the apartment of Iris (Rachel Brosnahan, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) and her husband Sidney (Oscar Isaac, of Star Wars and Marvel Comics movies). From the opening lines, the relationship between Sidney and Iris is plainly moribund (he viciously snipes at her), and only indications of their mutual sexual attraction suggest otherwise. Sidney, with a drinking problem and a bad ulcer, is the local saint of lost causes who, fresh off the failure of his cafe/nightclub, buys a local newspaper with money he doesn't have. Though Iris says she wants to be an actress, she's too afraid to audition, and they both know she'll never make it. Eventually, she declares her desperate need: "All I know is that, from now on, I just want something to happen in my life. I don't much care what. Just something."
The other characters include Wally (Andy Grotelueschen), a local politician whom Sidney naively agrees to support; Alton (Julian De Niro), Sidney’s friend; Max (Raphael Nash Thompson), a horny, abstract painter; Mavis (Miriam Silverman), Iris's proper, more traditional sister; Gloria (Gus Birney), Iris's pill-addicted other sister, a high-class hooker; and gay David (Glenn Fitzgerald), a playwright who lives upstairs from Sidney and Iris.
As with such dramas as those of Anton Chekhov, Eugene O'Neill, and William Saroyan, there is a relative unity of time and place but not action as multiple stories occupy a single space. Iris and David's apartment hosts their story and those of all the others that wander through. To the extent that the play generously encompasses the neighborhood, visiting elements of Iris's family and disparate narrative tracks, it sometimes risks a loss of focus and dramatic energy.
To Hansberry's credit, she doesn't treat her bohemians preciously, popping their pretentious balloons with lines like, "And where'd you get that outfit, man? You look just like a put-up job for Life-Magazine-Visits-the-Left-Bank," with which Alton takes a swipe at Max.
One of the plots involves Mavis and Iris's wayward sister, Gloria, and a scheme to get Alton to marry her and rescue her from "the life." The hope is that the disadvantage of Alton's skin shade (as a light-skinned Black man) makes the deal fair and possible. He incisively observes, explaining why he is offended by the racist transaction, "How do you think I got this color I am? I got this color from my grandmother being used as a commodity, man!"
Iris isn't the only one subjected to Sidney's nearsighted, self-righteous banter. He also goes after David for feeling vulnerable as a homosexual: "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 no wonder that Iris wants out, since Sidney can't hold his tongue.
Trigger warnings be damned, the text features a variety of gay epithets (e.g., "Fag Face"), antique racial language ("colored"), and such lines as: "Say what you will, but the Jews have get-up!"
The production finally hits its stride late, in a scene set in the wee hours of the morning after the election, when Mavis and Sidney have an honest talk, facilitated by a lot of booze. Oscar Isaac, whose energy and banjo playing buoy the show throughout, connects with Miriam Silverman so convincingly that it reveals what is too often missing here. Letting him know that she's in on the downtown game, she quips, "Everybody is his own hipster." Silverman shines when delivering her character's frank self-assessment and triumphantly embodies the power of her honesty. With reference to her lackluster marriage, she says, "In this world, there are two kinds of loneliness: with a man and without one. I picked. And, let's face it, I cannot type." It is the most satisfying scene in the production.
The elaborate, realistic stage set by dots floats the Brusteins’s apartment about ten feet off the stage floor and reserves a large patch of empty space between the stage and the audience where anomalously, for a short while late in the show, certain characters came to sit who were not directly involved in the scene being played above. These inexplicable choices created unhelpful detachment from the action.
The posthumous reconstitution of an unfinished work is sometimes an occasion for dramaturgical and directorial invention, as in the many versions of Georg Büchner's Woyzeck on German stages, where the scene order is altered and the story line changed. Similarly, one can only guess how Hansberry might have reworked and improved the play, had she lived.
Rickety as her play might be, Hansberry's characters cannot fail to win compassion, even if their run for glory is hopeless.
The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window by Lorraine Hansberry, directed by Anne Kauffman, runs through March 24, 2023 at BAM Harvey Theater, Brooklyn, New York