THE SIGN IN SIDNEY BRUSTEIN’S WINDOW and How To Handle A Revival — Review


Oscar Isaac | Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Joey Sims
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May 9, 2023 9:55 AM

Stepping out to introduce the play, the company of Target Margin’s recent revival of Pericles did not exactly strike a reverent tone.

“There’s a king,” they explained, setting the stage for their devised version of the Jacobean work. King Antiochus, he’s called. The king has been keeping his daughter as a “marriage playfellow” since the death of his wife.

“What are we talking about?” one performer asks.

Another cuts to the chase: “The dude sleeps with his daughter.”

Company of Pericles | Photo: Richard Termine

Theatrical revivals may typically be born of love, but love doesn’t always equal reverence. Before her first season as artistic director of Encores!, Lear deBessonet pointed to the dictionary definition of “revival” as a guiding point: “To make live again; to breathe life into; to wake up; to shake up.”

DeBessonet then confronted the challenge of how much shaking up is too much when audiences rejected Billy Porter’s ambitious adaptation of The Life, which connected the piece directly to our current moment through intriguing if heavy-handed revisions. Soon after, Encores! crowds embraced a no-frills Into the Woods that didn’t change a word, but in its staging spoke to resonant themes of loss, connection and the essential bonds of community. 

Of course, Woods is a masterpiece, and audiences are predisposed to the familiar. But the broader trend has continued into the 2022-23 season: revivals that graft a modern outlook onto period works have struggled to connect, while stagings that preserve the text while finding other ways to re-contextualize have found greater resonance. 

Exactly why a period text is considered flawed or problematic will vary with each show. Pericles is a fascinating but confusing epic, which historians say was written only in part by William Shakespeare; it’s easy to see why director David Herskovits and the Target Margin company decided to play around with it. This season brought a large-scale revival of Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner’s Camelot, widely viewed as having a ravishing score but an ungainly book; hence Lincoln Center enlisted Aaron Sorkin for a rewrite.

Rachel Brosnahan | Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Then there is the final entry into the season, Lorraine Hansberry’s rarely revived The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. Brustein is variously described as a “masterpiece lost in plain sight” or as an unfinished work that a dying Hansberry “didn’t have the luxury of getting right.” Anne Kauffman’s staging arrived on Broadway following a sell-out run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music earlier this spring, an unlikely journey made possible by the revival’s megawatt stars, Oscar Isaac and Rachel Brosnahan. 

Broadway audiences lured in by Isaac and Brosnahan, who are superb as central couple Sidney and Iris, will just have to grapple with Hansberry’s tricky play. It traces the collapse of the pair’s marriage against the backdrop of 1960s Greenwich Village, skewering toothless liberal activists while also confronting the maddening challenges to affecting any real change. Kauffman’s production helps those audiences up to a point. She juices the humor wherever possible, pushing an energized Isaac to play Sidney’s toxic absurdities for laughs. His cruelty towards Iris (and all women) is palpable from the start, but grows unbearably painful only in the second act. 

The pace is brisker on Broadway, 15 minutes shorter than the Brooklyn production (nothing was cut, it just moves faster). Kauffman has also removed a staging element where departed characters set up folding chairs and watched the play’s last scenes unfold —  a distancing touch that suggested a certain, “Boy, shit is getting weird” commentary on the final section.

Shit does get weird, though. Iris goes missing from the play, while Hansberry’s focus on activism and inequality grows fuzzier. The narrative shifts to Iris’ sister Gloria (an excellent Gus Birney), whose return sets off a long night of psychodrama between herself, Sidney and his roommate David (Glenn Fitzgerald) as they get increasingly drunk and high. Kauffman leans into the surreality of the final section — the action starts to feel almost dreamlike, a tonal acknowledgment of the text’s increasing disjointedness. Yet the mess of ideas and unresolved questions are thrown at the audience without apology—you just have to deal with it. 

By contrast, Aaron Sorkin’s revised Camelot book flattens many of its themes, along with its narrative. The central love triangle is simplified, with Guenevere giving in to her desire for Lancelot after Arthur fails to give her sufficient attention; while Arthur’s vision of a new and better society is extolled in West Wing-style speeches, but never given much specificity. In Pericles, similarly, the knowing commentary peppered throughout the production adds little, and does not hugely help in clarifying the play’s confusing plot. In both cases, these productions are most affecting where they honor the strengths of the original: Camelot’s wondrous songs, and Pericles’ moving final recognition scene, which is performed in full. 

Peterson Townsend and Emma Pfitzer Price in Becomes A Woman | Photo: Todd Cerveris

In letting an unaltered period text speak naturally to the current moment, this Sidney Brustein revival achieves something similar to the work of the Mint Theater Company, which produces worthwhile but forgotten old plays. The Mint’s spring production Becomes A Woman, a 1931 unproduced work by novelist Betty Smith, also proved a startling modern text. In its story of young shopgirl Francine finding herself tossed aside by family and friends following an unplanned pregnancy, it dealt bluntly with class, inequality and the unjust burdens born by women. 

One especially fascinating scene in Smith’s play mirrors a powerful moment in Brustein. Francie is visited by the wealthy father of the man who impregnated and then quickly abandoned her. The father is, to our surprise and hers, an oddly decent man, who feels shame at his son’s behavior. If his goal is still ultimately to “deal with” Francie and the problem she poses, Smith nonetheless lends an ambiguity to her portrayal of him that wonderfully complicates the scene. The exchange mirrors a late moment in Brustein between Sidney and Iris’ sister Mavis (Miriam Silverman) who, despite her racist and regressive views, is revealed to have far greater self-awareness than we (and Sidney) might have assumed. 

Culturally and politically, we are in a moment where such scenes are less likely to be written—and rightly so. Our divisions are stark, and the evil of our opponents is far from nuanced. That’s why these scenes, written 92 and 59 years ago respectively, land as something refreshing right now. Smith and Hansberry lend complexity to these two contemptible figures without letting them off the hook. It is of another time, but we need it right now. That’s why we revive. 

The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is now in performance at the Jones Theatre through July 2, 2023. For tickets and more information, visit here.

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Joey Sims

Joey Sims has written at The Brooklyn Rail, TheaterMania, American Theatre Magazine, Culturebot, Exeunt NYC, New York Theatre Guide, No Proscenium, Broadway’s Best Shows, and Extended Play. He was previously Social Media Editor at Exeunt, and a freelance web producer at TodayTix Group. Joey is an alumnus of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute, and a script reader for The O’Neill and New Dramatists. He runs a theater substack called Transitions.

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