This lesser-known work is receiving the vibrant airing it deserves, courtesy of the Brooklyn Academy of Music and director Anne Kauffman. She shepherds a sparkling cast of eight, led by Oscar Isaac and Rachel Brosnahan, through the early-’60s personal and political travails that unsettle the marriage of Isaac’s Sidney and Brosnahan’s Iris. Through this intimate prism, Hansberry develops a layered manifesto, about the urgency of abandoning political neutrality and disrupting the status quo.
Kauffman, who first directed a revival of the play in Chicago several years ago, has herself called it an unfinished work. Others familiar with its history use the word incomplete; efforts to refine it have involved adding to and subtracting elements from the 1964 Broadway production, which closed two days after Hansberry’s death in January 1965. (Subsequent tweaks to the script were spearheaded by her former husband, Robert Nemiroff, who headed her literary trust.)
The process culminates in BAM’s Harvey Theater in a somewhat bulky but altogether fascinating tragicomedy, exploring the political crosscurrents of the time. Racism, antisemitism, feminism, cronyism and socialism are just some of the -isms that arise over the three-hour play, set in the Brusteins’ Greenwich Village apartment.
If “Raisin in the Sun” is a landmark drama for its depiction of the hostility encountered by the first Black family to move into a White Chicago neighborhood, “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” is harder to categorize. It’s a funnier, rangier and in some ways more ambitious play that gives its central character attributes both magnetic and off-putting. For even as Sidney engages in admirable battles, he’s also capable of thoughtless cruelty toward Iris, a struggling actress who takes her husband’s reflexive put-downs to heart. The contradictions in his personality keep audiences off balance: Are we meant to root for Sidney, or the marriage, to succeed?
The ambiguities may confound some spectators. They’re what I loved most. Hansberry places her specimens under an acute social microscope, not so much for us to identify with, but to be considered timely vanes in the winds of change.
The sign of the title is a campaign poster for Wally O’Hara (Andy Grotelueschen) a glad-handing candidate running for local office on a reform platform against the party bosses. Sidney — who has just wangled a deal to buy (on credit) an arty neighborhood newspaper — at first rejects Wally’s entreaties for an endorsement. But Sidney quickly reverts to his idealistic instincts and agrees to back him. One of the play’s weaknesses is failing to address this abrupt turnaround; it’s an early “sign” of some narrative wrinkles in the plot.
The rewarding gallery of characters who pass through the Brusteins’ modest walk-up, authentically rendered by the Dots design collective, go a long way to enriching Hansberry’s construct. Iris and her sisters, Mavis (Miriam Silverman) and Gloria (Gus Birney), make for a compellingly diverse sorority.
In counterpoint to Brosnahan’s well-drawn, insecure Iris, chafing at Sidney’s overbearing protectiveness, Silverman superbly embodies the eldest sister, a snooty Upper East Side busybody who looks down on Black and Jewish people. Her second act speech about her own surprising sacrifices is one of the production’s high points. Birney’s Gloria, the youngest and most troubled sister, arrives late in the play, to complete their Greek father’s notion of his family enveloped in classical tragedy.
Glenn Fitzgerald, as the Brusteins’ upstairs neighbor, a gay playwright; Julian De Niro, as a Black proletarian who asks Gloria to marry him; and Grotelueschen are all blessed with meaty, well-handled supporting roles. And Raphael Nash Thompson has an amusing scene, playing a bohemian painter who comes up with eccentric mock-ups of newspaper mastheads. They’re all dressed — especially the women — with a dazzling eye for the period by Brenda Abbandandolo.
Hansberry reserves long stretches of “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” for what might be called “The World According to Sidney,” his self-indulgent joy at holding forth and picking fights. “The world needs insults!” he declares in the midst of one abrasive exchange. Isaac masters the art of being Sidney, of allowing us to recognize the blind spots that the character doesn’t, how he can profess his sympathy for equality while ordering his wife to get him a beer. (And with the banjo he picks up and plays, the “Inside Llewyn Davis” star reminds us of his musical chops.)
Brosnahan is every bit Isaac’s rhetorical equal, calling Sidney out on his bloviating and letting us know that the marriage he envisions is not the one she’s in. She makes believable all the stages of Iris’s search for the freedom that women of her generation struggled to achieve. When at last the play’s turbulence results in a rude awakening for Sidney and a sorrow no one is prepared for, we’re left to ponder what consoling signs the cosmos can possibly send to the shaken Brusteins.
The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, by Lorraine Hansberry. Directed by Anne Kauffman. Set, Dots design collective; costumes, Brenda Abbandandolo; lighting, John Torres; sound, Bray Poor. About three hours. Through March 24 at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theatre, 651 Fulton St., New York. bam.org.