Tuesday, March 7, 2023

The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window - When Dreams Die

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

There's a line in the 1939 film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" about lost causes being the only ones worth fighting for. This also proves to be the ultimate truth in Lorraine Hansberry’s involving drama The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window. Written in 1964, the play can be seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in its first major New York revival in over 50 years.

New York City's Greenwich Village in the 1960s may be a hotbed of social and political fervent, but local resident Sidney Brustein (Oscar Isaac) has become a disillusioned idealist. A veteran of dozens of protests, he has seen all of the causes he has fought for come to naught. Now he is content to stay on the sidelines, play his banjo and try to find his place in the world. His latest interest is a failing local newspaper he purchased; which he plans to fill with stories of art, poetry, and like-minded pieces. With the pages containing nothing at all controversial.

Rachel Brosnahan and Oscar Isaac in the Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window.  Photo: Julieta  Cervantes

Things change when his friend Wally (Andy Grotelueschen) decides to challenge the local political machine in an upcoming election and seeks Sidney’s endorsement in the paper. Despite his initial refusal, it’s not long before Sidney finds the fires in his belly rekindling, and he enthusiastically jumps into the fray. An effort which includes organizing rallies, coming up with campaign slogans and placing a large sign supporting Wally in his apartment widow.

Sidney is also a something of a condescending narcissist. He continually belittles his wife Iris (Rachel Brosnahan), who he loves dearly, with backhanded compliments and pointed remarks. He also has an intense dislike of any type of psychiatric therapy. Something Iris, a failed actress turned waitress with massive insecurity issues, has been undergoing for some time. Interestingly, it’s Iris, who came to New York from Oklahoma to escape an unhappy family life, who sees things far more clearly than Sidney. Especially how Wally’s campaign may not be as wonderful as it first appears. Sidney’s continual refusal to heed Iris’ warnings or treat her as an equal not only threaten his marriage, but also eventually force him to realize how he's being used by those in power as a way to keep the status quo in place.

The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window deftly combines multiple issues, all of which command the audience’s attention. On the surface the play looks at how the system is rigged against the so-called “little people.” Yet at the same time, Hansberry shows that no matter how many times one is unable to change situations they believe to be unjust, the important thing is to continue to challenge them. For only then can the possibility of change continue to exist.

        Oscar Isaac and Glenn Fitzgerald in The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window. Photo:  Julieta Cervantes

Just as the ideas of giving up or fighting on are in conflict with one another, so too are other contradictory elements that appear throughout the work. Ones which deal with racism and how it’s perceived; the danger of holding onto an ideal too tightly; and the question of achieving success after decades of disdain for it. The latter conundrum involving David (Glenn Fitzgerald), a struggling playwright and the Brustein’s upstairs neighbor. Other issues explored include the question of memory, as seen through Iris and her sisters Mavis (Miriam Silverman) and Gloria (Gus Birney). All three of whom have attained a different social strata, and each of which have different recollections of their childhood. The play also asks what happens when you go too far to get what you want. As when Iris has a chance to revitalize her acting career, even though it may mean morally prostituting herself in the process.

Most important of all is the way the play takes care never to hit the audience over the head of with any of the issues it presented. Instead it allows them to unfold gradually during the course of the work and let the story speak for itself easily and naturally.

Isaac gives an excellent performance as Sidney. The character a true believer and complex individual who goes from one extreme to another as he realizes what he truly wants in life – and who he wants to share that life with. He also has a terrible problem when it comes to doing math.

                Rachel Brosnahan in The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Brosnahan matches Isaac beat for beat as Iris. A woman who desperately wants to fulfill her own dreams, and also find that one place in the world where she truly belongs. Like Sidney, she must first realize her own limitations, something the play notes is not necessarily a bad thing, and then use that realization to move forward.

Silverman does very well as Mavis. At first glance, a rather narrow-minded and bigoted individual, but also a person capable of remarkable insight. Also pivotal to the story is Birney as Gloria as she portrays an utterly lost soul trapped in a dead-end life. A life from which she is determined to escape, at any cost.

The only major problem in the play deals with how the story is structured. While act one nicely sets up the various characters and situations, act two crams in too much exposition, one right on top of the other, which hampers the work’s overall flow. Additionally, the scenes with Gloria, while quite important to the play, go on a bit too long.

               Miriam Silverman in The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window: Photo: Julieta Cervantes

As topical today as when it was first written, “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” makes clear how not taking a stand on any issue is the most dangerous choice of all.

Featuring:  Oscar Isaac (Sidney Brustein), Rachel Brosnahan (Iris Parodus Brustein), Gus Birney (Gloria Parodus), Julian De Niro (Alton Scales), Glenn Fitzgerald (David Ragin), Andy Grotelueschen (Wally O’Hara), Miriam Silverman (Mavis Parodus Bryson), Nash Thompson (Max)

The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window

by Loraine Hansberry 

Scenic Design: dots

Costume Design: Brenda Abbandandolo

Lighting Design: John Torres

Sound Design: Bray Poor

Hair & Wig Design: Andrew Diaz

Casting: Taylor Williams, CSA

Script Supervisor: Joi Gresham

Dramatrug: Amanda Thomas

Movement Director: Sonya Tayeh

Voice Coach: Kate Wilson

Production Stage Manager: Ralph Stan Lee

Directed by Anne Kauffman


Presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music

BAM Harvey Theater

651 Fulton Street

Tickets: 718-636-4100 or www.bam.org

Running time: three hours, one intermission

Closes: March 24, 2023


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