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Alas From the Past: “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window”

To Be Young, Gifted and Black was the title of both a play and later an autobiography, posthumously performed and published following the death of Lorraine Hansberry, at the age of 34. And gifted she was: Best known for the seminal A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry could channel rage into artful observation, bracing dialogue, and lyrical imagery. The playwright no doubt had plenty more to say and more work to contribute prior to her untimely death; gifts, indeed, yet to be recognized and added to the dramatic canon.

Sadly, her 1965 death meant that only one other work opened on Broadway in her lifetime: The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, which opened on Broadway in October 1964 and closed the following January, two days before her death at 34. It is, perhaps, an incomplete, unfinished play, with an ill, hospitalized Hansberry unable to make significant rewrites as the show neared its opening. Nonetheless, it was a critical failure as well as a commercial one, with only one 1972 revival in New York – until now, with a production helmed by Anne Kauffman at Brooklyn Academy of Music that follows her 2016 production at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. And yet despite some additional reworking (from her ex-husband, and literary executor, and now by the creative time of this revival), a satisfactory solution has not yet been found. and a mostly able cast, this act of excavation has not unearthed buried treasure. Far from it.

Unlike Raisin (and perhaps a surprise to some in the 1960s), Sidney Brustein focuses on a group of white people in the West Village – bohemians with high hopes, good intentions, and little accountability. Film actor Oscar Isaac is the title character, a Jewish and white idealist who dabbles in a lot of endeavors. He has just shuttered an unsuccessful folk bar called Walden Pond and taken ownership of a community newspaper called The Village Crier, a substitute for The Village Voice. Sidney initially wants the publication to stay out of politics, but he quickly supports a transparent reform candidate named Wally O’Hara (a great Andy Grotelueschen).

Hansberry’s first flaw in the show is the relationship she has created between Sidney and his wife, Iris (Rachel Brosnahan, TV’s Mrs. Maisel), an aspiring actress of Greek, Irish, and Cherokee descent who he frequently derides and demeans in public. The two have been married for five years, but since all they do is fight, and never really seem to see the other, one wonders why they ever got hitched. (One can intuit that feverish sex provide temporary fixes to the problems caused by big tempers, self-absorption and disrespect, but none of that is provided in the world of the play itself.) There’s no drama here – if you’re going to show their union fissure, first you have to show why they cleaved. Additionally, Iris’s tribulations as a performer and disdain for Wally, an obviously terrible candidate, are written so clunkily that Brosnahan has little choice but to put herself through the paces.

But these scenes, dramatically unrevelatory as they are, are essentially placeholders. Sidney Brustein is primarily built around the supporting characters coming into their world (and it’s a world wonderfully lit by John Torres), a motley mix of either blood or chosen family members that include Sidney’s friend, Alton (Julian De Niro), a young Black activist who can pass as white, a subject that goes largely unexplored; their upstairs neighbor, David (Glenn Fitzgerald, in terrific form here), a gay absurdist (or maybe just pretentious?) playwright; Max (Raphael Nash Thompson), an artist who designs a pretentious Crier cover; and Iris’ sisters, Gloria (Gus Birney), and Mavis, (Miriam Silverman, excellent), who represent opposing ways to navigate the world.

But it’s clumsy about them, too. The characters are social types meant to represent things and interject about things. But Hansberry didn’t, or couldn’t, find a way true thesis for the show. If the bones of Sidney Brustein are about hypocrisy or the failed hope of progressivism, there’s no meat on the bones. This is just a reflection of, not a reaction to, the bohemian scene of the 1960s.

Any group scene tends to run on too long and make its characters’ interests too obvious with pretentious monologues (and monologues that not all actors seem to grasp onto equally). And the playwright’s stylistic experimentation – realism shifts to surrealism, naturalism to the lightest spectrum of absurdism, a middle act diverges into a sea of monologues – is a collision of attempts that yields nothing. It also doesn’t help Sidney Brustein the play that Sidney Brustein the character is such a cipher – obtuse but never judged, opaque but lacking any interesting characteristics. Isaac can make him feel authentic, but he can’t make him feel known.

Kauffman, so great at making a playwright’s intentions palpable, overcorrects in the opposite direction with a few expressionist choices that also don’t pay off. In the first act, Iris and Sidney have a conversation across planes of time, she on the living room couch, he on the rooftop, pretending like they are together at a cabin in the woods. The discordance between that and the more literal staging that has preceded it for an hour is too gauzy. And collective dots’ design hoists the set up above and at a remove from the lip of the stage, an impressive feat but one that means the audience can see underneath it and to both sides, distracted by actors about to make their entrance or after they have made an exit. Okay, fine; but when Kauffman directs several of the actors to haul out folding chairs in front of the audience and watch the play they’re in, we’re again distracted by a seeming lack of faith in the text.

It’s a dangerous game, resurrecting a deeply flawed play by a vaunted playwright felled too soon by cancer. But this famously flawed play is not the way to honor her. Kauffman thinks she has brought back a lecture by a great teacher of the form. Instead, Hansberry reveals herself to still have been a student, with more lessons to learn. Yes, it’s our loss that she was unable to fulfill her promise and have more superlative work outlive her. But this production, straining as hard as it does to feel capital-letter Important, does Hansberry no favors.

The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window

BAM’s Harvey Theater