THE SIGN IN SIDNEY BRUSTEIN’S WINDOW Still Slipping Off — Review
The Chicago Tribune’s orgasmic review of a 2016 production of The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window set forth a farcical sequence of events its writer, Lorraine Hansberry, could have never predicted. Riddled with self-congratulatory scorn for the supposed folly of the 1964 play’s original critics for, not only not understanding, but feeling threatened by its critique of well-intentioned white liberals, the Chicago critic called the Raisin in the Sun playwright’s rarely seen other play, “a masterpiece lost in plain sight.”
It now arrives back in New York, in a buzzy staging starring the unimpeachable Oscar Isaac in the title role, with the fine Rachel Brosnahan playing his wife Iris. This production, its lead-up would have you believe, will prove those old fossils wrong, and save Hansberry from any notion of having been a one-hit wonder, despite the brevity of her career being the result of her untimely death at 34.
As the Public Theater’s excellent revival of Raisin last year reconfirmed, Hansberry is not a writer whose genius was ever in question, and if Sign’s retreat into the footnotes of her biography is an indication of anything, it is only that even our best writers can misfire. What this Raise the Titanic “reclamation” does prove is that white liberals will continue to put their feet in their mouths, regardless of intention.
The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is not a very good play. It is bloated with stock characters—the foppish writer, the melodramatic prostitute, the apathetic bohemian—and mostly bereft of insightful revelations, compelling plot, or justification for its near three-hour runtime.
It concerns the brief dissolution of Brustein’s marriage, shortly after his vinyl record lounge (named Walden Pond) shutters and he decides to buy a small newspaper native to his Greenwich Village neighborhood. Though a de facto progressive Jew, he must nevertheless be reluctantly politicized into endorsing the upcoming local election’s reform candidate by the young, biracial Alton (Julian De Niro), a Black artist named Max (Raphael Nash Thompson, excellent), and the gay playwright David (Glenn Fitzgerald, buckling under the role’s archetypal limp-wristedness). “You’re gonna wear your ass out sitting on that fence,” Max quips. Sidney concedes, and the Sign goes up.
Each of these characters have their own issues and dramas, some well-integrated into the main couple’s, like Alton’s romance with Iris’ younger sister (Gus Birney, pantomiming), of which her other sister, the buttoned-up Mavis (Miriam Silverman, scene-stealing) disapproves. But these diversions, for the most part, crowd out a coherent thesis and do not coalesce in the sophisticated way all of Raisin’s disparate ends do.
Despite committed performances from its cast, and a reliably great set by ‘dots,’ who manages to lend an exalted air of artistry to even the most realistic apartment, this overlong production, under Anne Kauffman’s slippery direction, never keeps its sights on any one target long enough to find anything interesting to say. Hansberry might have been ahead of her time, and prescient in her analysis of impotent liberalism, but this is a sign stored away.
The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is in performance through March 24, 2023 at BAM’s Harvey Theatre on Fulton Street in New York City. For tickets and more information, visit here.