By Samuel L. Leiter . . .

In his Foreword to the 1965 publication of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1964 play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, John Braine takes issue with the critics who, more or less, dismissed it when it opened on Broadway. Choosing an adjective he acknowledged was overused, he called the play “great,” adding his conviction that “sooner or later, with one production or another, in this country or another, the public’s judgment will be better.” You don’t need lots of gray matter to note the inaccuracy of Braine’s prediction. While occasionally revived outside New York, the play has not, to my knowledge, received the major reevaluation Braine foresaw.

As frequently recounted, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, Hansberry’s second Broadway play following her success with 1959’s A Raisin in the Sun, had trouble from the start, as the playwright’s cancer prevented her from continuing to improve the script. Still, many notable celebrities rallied to save the struggling show, managing to help it reach 101 performances; she died, only 34 years old, two days after it closed. 

Oscar Isaaacs – Glenn Fitzgerald

None of which is to deny many of the play’s values, occasionally apparent in its second Broadway revival (the first, in 1972, had five performances), now at the James Earl Jones Theatre for a limited engagement of 80 performances; it enjoyed a sold-out run at BAM earlier in the year. That run, and whatever interest the revival stirs on Broadway, is largely attributable to the presence of its stars, Oscar Isaacs (Inside Llewelyn Davis; the “Star Wars” films), as the title character, and Rachel Brosnahan (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) as his wife, Iris.

The sign in Sidney and Iris Brustein’s window, located in their relatively spacious Greenwich Village apartment (designed by the dots collective)—fire escapes rising outside its stage right window—blares (in this production), “WIPE OUT BOSSISM. Vote O’Hara for Reform!” (The published script gives “CLEAN UP COMMUNITY POLITICS. Wipe Out Bossism. Vote Reform.”) Brustein, after various failed enterprises, and with no apparent source of income, has become editor of a new Village newspaper, devoted to cultural journalism and deliberately avoiding politics. Iris, from small-town Oklahoma, is a wannabe actress of Greek, Cherokee, and Irish heritage, who’s in analysis and waits on tables. 

As the sign indicates, Sidney eventually changes his mind about political activism when he chooses to support liberal politician Wally O’Hara (Andy Grotelueschen, Tootsie). Sidney is a carelessly dressed “bohemian,” an argumentative Jewish intellectual and leftwing idealist with an ulcer; he’s also got an opinion on everything and a potentially obnoxious predilection for acidic putdowns of those with whom he disagrees; Iris, whom he clearly loves and desires, is a particular target.

Julian De Niro – Miriam Silverman

We witness his rocky relationship with Iris, whose decision—when other jobs are not forthcoming—to act in a commercial seriously disturbs him. Then there are his friendships with a troubled gay neighbor, the absurdist playwright David Ragin (Glenn Fitzgerald, Lobby Hero); a young Black Marxist, Alton Scales (Julian De Niro; see note at end), who, despite his sensitivity to the oppression of his race, treats his fiancée with similar injustice when he learns that she’s been a sex worker; and an abstract artist named Max (Raphael Nash Thompson), who’s created a ridiculously radical layout for Sidney’s paper.

Add to this Iris’s two sisters, the conservative, financially well off, but marginally racist and anti-Semitic Mavis (Miriam Silverman), who confesses unexpected news about her own marriage, and Gloria Parodus (Gus Birney), Alton’s aforementioned fiancée, whose bimbo-like voice betrays a deeper, albeit damaged, soul than you might at first have detected.

Each of these relationships offers Hansberry the opportunity to explore the multiple ideas outlined above, too many for this rambling, lopsided drama—with its 90-minute first act followed by a second only half as long in which Iris is not seen for lengthy stretches—to comfortably contain. This is especially apparent without a strong central plot, apart from the way Sidney essentially comes of age through his interactions, to hold it all together. 

Rachel Brosnahan – Oscar Isaacs

Many of the arguments are interesting, though, even arresting; some because of their historical interest in illuminating concerns of the early 60s, others because of their continuing universality. But the work feels more like a series of scenes than an organic whole. And the language can seem self-consciously overblown and intellectual, as often happens when highly educated stage characters gather to bloviate about the meaning of life.

Hansberry, handling her diverse strands both seriously and satirically—the play ignites some strong laughs—confronts the struggle between artistic integrity and commercialization; the need to make one’s existence matter; the values of abstract art and nonconventional theatre; substance abuse; the commodification of sex as viewed through the lens of a Black communist; interracial marriage (Hansberry was married to and divorced from a white, Jewish man); pervasive guilt; one’s social and artistic responsibilities; the abuses of homosexuality—this is one of the first Broadway plays to express the subject so candidly; what sounds pretty close to open marriage; and the pervasiveness of political corruption, regardless of party. And sprinkled here and there are references to Greek tragedy and mythology.

As per many such far-reaching dramas about man’s everyday struggles to make sense out of life, someone’s suicide serves as a catalyst for bringing people together. Often, we’re surprised by how characters develop, as, for example, when we’re forced to reassess our opinion of the supposedly narrow-minded Mavis, whose extended scene with Oscar in the second act goes a long way toward shaking his preconceptions.

Julian DeNiro – Andy Grotelueschen

With so much going on, it’s not surprising the play runs for two hours and 45 minutes. Director Anne Kauffman strives to keep the energy flowing, with upbeat pacing and, often, bigger-than-life performances. The acting, thus, is too constantly energetic, playful, volatile, and angry to be more than superficially convincing. Emotions are scattered everywhere, perhaps a necessity to sustain interest in the verbal flow, with its numerous points and counterpoints, both between Sidney and Iris, and Sidney and everyone else. People often talk at the top of their lungs, using every excuse to find reasons for cutesy physical activity (especially during the breathless interchanges between Sidney and Iris, which often seem more stagey than true). What might, on film, be naturalistic often goes too far in the opposite direction. 

Moreover, despite a sound score by Bray Poor, incorporating the kind of folksy music likely to be heard at the Brusteins (nothing too distractingly familiar, though), the production barely establishes a believable 1960s ambience; most of Brenda Abbandanolo’s costumes, apart perhaps from Mavis’s frocks, are particularly bland in this regard.

The stars have earned loud kudos for their work but, aside from their energy and passion, coupled with Mr. Isaacs’s display of banjo expertise and Ms. Brosnahan’s willingness to downplay her glamor, I saw nothing rising above the professionalism expected from these talented actors. They carry on with all the appropriate histrionics but, given what they must say and do, never break through as real human beings. The others, for the most part, are acceptable, with a nod toward something higher from Ms. Silverman. 

Rachel Brosnahan

There’s no question that A Raisin in the Sun will continue to receive Broadway revivals; I doubt that will be the case with The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.

Note: This is where I must add a little-known factoid about the casting of the play. Its sole Black character, Alton, is described by Hansberry as “dark,” although a line in the script refers to him as “cream-colored.” The actor playing the part in the 1972 revival, John Danelle, fit the first adjective, while the actor playing him now (the son of Robert De Niro and Toukie Smith) fits the second. But the actor who originated the part in 1964, Ben Aliza (1938-2013), was, as far as my own experience goes, both white and Jewish. 

He and I were fellow theater students at Brooklyn College at the start of the sixties, where Ben, an ex-Marine born and raised in Brooklyn, used his actual last name, Finkle (Finkel?). After graduation we lost touch. Ben, tall and handsome, was somewhat swarthy and had a distinctively nappy head of hair, worn short; as photos of the original production reveal, he could ostensibly “pass” as Black. But this was 1964, and for a white actor to play a Black character at that sensitive time in the Civil Rights era seems impossible to believe. Yet I’m not aware of any controversy about it. If any reader knows the truth, it would help solve a mystery I’ve pondered for nearly 60 years. 

The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. Through July 2 at the James Earl Jones Theatre (138 West 48th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues). 

Photos: Julieta Cervantes