Oscar Isaac and Rachel Brosnahan Are Catching a Wave to Brooklyn
The title character in Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is a bit of a hot mess. Yet those little idiosyncrasies and character flaws are exactly what drew Oscar Isaac to portray Sidney in the BAM production, now playing in Brooklyn and co-starring Rachel Brosnahan as his wife, Iris.
For example, Sidney drinks a lot. “That’s been an interesting thing to track…the nature of when he drinks, why he drinks, how that affects him throughout the scene,” says the star. “To be saying, ‘okay, I know in about two lines, I’m going to go for a drink. Why? And what is it that I’m needing to numb right now?’”
To be fair to Sidney, there are plenty of things for him to numb. A flailing marriage, shaky job security, changing socio-political dynamics, the list goes on. “I’d say it’s like the Greek tragic version of a Seinfeld episode,” he says half-jokingly. Ultimately, the play explores the human need to continue feeling emotions throughout life, checking in with ourselves to ask what’s working (or not), and being vulnerable.
Despite the heavy description, the play itself is full of banter and levity, both on stage and off. “The interaction with the audience, even just breathing together…it feels a lot like playing live music; there’s a direct connection that’s just so beautiful,” says the star. [Editor’s note: Isaac does indeed play the banjo several times throughout the show.]
His on-stage partner is tuned in, as well. “He turned to me the other night and said, ‘Let’s try to catch a wave,’” says Brosnahan. “And I was like, ‘That’s exactly what it feels like to do this show.’ It’s so big and it encompasses so many big questions and themes and ideas and conversations.”
The Emmy winner connects with her character by tapping into the softer side, which Brosnahan says she hasn’t gotten to explore as much in previous projects. “I love how…inside-out she is as a person. All her squishiest bits are on the outside, and that felt like a real challenge for me.”
On stage, the pair play a couple in a show of strength, weathering a shitstorm of epic proportions as their world crumbles, tackling both their character’s inner turmoil but the hefty challenge given to the actors by the playwright. Not too shabby for two performers who hadn’t even heard of the play until a reading a couple of years ago.
“I have loved the opportunity to be a part of bringing this play back into public consciousness,” Brosnahan says. “It’s a travesty that it hasn’t been done more than a handful of times since it originally premiered on Broadway… [Hansberry] was prophetic.” When she wrote it in the ‘60s, the playwright planted seeds for conversations that “are blooming fully now.”
Director Anne Kauffman says she first discovered the play while studying performance in undergrad. In an anthology of monologues, she stumbled upon Iris’ searing speech about what it’s like to be an actor. (Spoiler alert: the profession is exhausting, demeaning, and terrifying.) Years later after moving into directing, Kaufmann re-encountered that infamous diatribe when a student of hers at NYU decided to do her entire thesis on it. She fell in love with it again.
According to Kauffman, Hansberry presents a “very loving community of human beings, and she shows us their flaws, underlined in dark crayon.” It’s a portrait of what it means to be a human being, cracks and all.
That portrait is something that Joi Gresham, Director and Trustee of the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust, believes will connect deeply with audiences of all ages. “This play is like the perfect modernist play; it’s forever contemporary,” she says. Since the show began previews, her favorite reaction has been from those of Gen-Z and millennials who find themselves drawn into this story. Set more than 50 years ago, the language and topics are eerily prescient, shining a light on mental health, LGBTQIA+ rights, interracial relationships, and more.
Bottom line: “It’s really kind of amazing to see this play and to understand that this was before movements that we take for granted now.”
The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is currently scheduled to play at the Harvey Theatre in BAM Strong through March 24. For tickets and more information, click here.