When it opened in 1964, Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window must have been quite jolting. Her 1959 Broadway debut A Raisin in the Sun was somewhat challenging. As the first play by an African-American woman to play what was then known as the Great White Way, Raisin may have shaken traditional theatergoers with its predominantly black cast and tackling of such issues as housing discrimination and institutional racism. But Raisin offers a comfortable, reassuring resolution as the Younger family bravely faces down the bigoted homeowners of Clybourne Park and moves out to the suburbs. Sidney Brustein delivers no such warm and fuzzy message.
Window centers on a group of mostly white radical bohemians, rejecting traditional notions of success while butting up against entrenched political and social power, reflecting the turbulence of the times. Nobody’s heroic or noble, just flawed human beings looking for meaning in their complicated lives. The title character is an aimless liberal, searching for a cause in Greenwich Village. After failing as a nightclub owner, Sidney acquires a local newspaper and attempts to make a difference in his community, but his bitter cynicism often gets in the way. His wife Iris is equally rootless, toiling as a waitress in a pancake house while pursuing an acting career. But she’s terrified of auditioning. Their marriage is a push-pull affair as Sidney carps at Iris for not living up to his impossibly high intellectual expectations and she attempts to establish own identity.
There’s also Iris’ glamorous sister Gloria, who puts out that she is a high-class fashion model, but is really a high-class hooker. She’s in love with African-American book store clerk Alton who is unaware of her true profession. There’s also David, a gay playwright neighbor; Mavis, Iris and Gloria’s stuffy, upper-middle-class sibling; abstract painter Max; and Wally O’Hara, a political candidate for city council purporting to be for the little guy, but actually owned by the machine. The sign of the title refers to a placard supporting Wally which comes to symbolize Sidney’s disillusions and eventual resolve to overcome his cynicism.
Each of these characters could easily have be written as a spokesperson for a particular viewpoint, but Hansberry makes all of them complex and unique. None are what they appear to be on the surface and their clashes and conflicts make for absorbing theater. Critics and audiences weren’t quite ready for such a heady brew and despite a campaign by celebrities to keep Sign running, it closed after only 101 performances, just two days before Hansberry died of cancer at the age of 34.
Before now, there has only been one Broadway revival which closed after 5 performances in 1972. The current production at the James Earl Jones Theater after a successful run at BAM, restores this neglected, insightful portrait of the early 1960s to vivid life.
Anne Kaufman’s staging emphasizes the connections between the disparate characters and eschews speech-making and melodrama. There is a lot going on with debates ranging across political, sexual, and racial lines. But Kaufman and her proficient, compassionate cast keep the action on a human level.
Oscar Isaac manages to make Sidney into a magnetic charmer despite his vicious tongue and sarcastic humor. Isaac plays Sidney as a man who doesn’t know what to do with his considerable talent, passion, and intelligence. Rachel Brosnahan is equally adept at portraying Iris’ internal struggle between her fierce drive and her crushing self-doubt.
Miriam Silverman dazzles as Mavis whose bland housewife veneer is stripped away in a heart wrenching monologue, confiding the barrenness of her seemingly pristine domestic arrangement to Sidney. (It’s interesting to note that the original Mavis, Alice Ghostley, who won a Tony Award for this dramatic role, was best known for her wacky characters on TV sitcoms like Bewitched and Designing Women.) Gus Birney also delivers a stunning performance as the self-aware prostitute Gloria, giving her a baby-doll voice belying her ancient sadness and hard-won wisdom. Costume designer Brenda Abbandandolo, whose period clothes are spot-on, dresses her like a combination Barbie Doll and Kit Kit Klub dancer. The gritty, detailed set of a Village brownstone is by the team known as dots.
Julian De Niro gives full weight to Alton’s rage and confusion leading up to his discovery of Gloria’s true calling. Glenn Fitzgerald admirably limns David, probably the most fully-realized, non-stereotyped gay character written before The Boys in the Band. (Hansberry was a closeted lesbian and it’s fascinating to speculate how many other deep gay characters she would have created.) Andy Grotelueschen and Raphael Nash Thompson round out the cast with believable, more-than-just-comic turns as Wally and Max.
Sidney, Iris and their friends can be smug and pretentious, but they are also realistically drawn with deep back stories. Their arguments still ring true. This production makes you mourn for all the unwritten works Hansberry might have given us and wonder what she would have made of our current fractured state of disunion.