'The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window' review — Lorraine Hansberry's play holds a mirror to the world

Read our review of Oscar Isaac and Rachel Brosnahan in The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window on Broadway, playing at the James Earl Jones Theatre through July 2.

Amelia Merrill
Amelia Merrill

The Broadway production of The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, now running at the James Earl Jones Theatre, feels almost antithetical to the play’s debates about the morality and function of art: Two TV and movie stars (Oscar Isaac in the title role and Rachel Brosnahan as his wife, Iris) make it a hot ticket, while producers transferred the production from the Brooklyn Academy of Music at the last minute to earn Tony Award nominations. (It earned two, including Best Revival of a Play.)

Lorraine Hansberry’s lengthy play was written before the attention span of the theatregoer was influenced by other media, but the length is no obstacle: If conversations run in circles in the Brustein apartment, it’s because real-world conversations of the personal and political sometimes run in circles. If the characters frustrate each other and the audience through self-sabotage, Hansberry lingers in this discomfort without progress on purpose.

Sidney Brustein — no longer an idealist but still a fighter, no longer a revolutionary but still moved by the plight of the common man — is not the sort of protagonist who speaks to move the plot forward. He doesn’t force revelations to the surface, but lets them arise naturally. He’s like a less suicidal Hamlet (another famed Isaac performance), shooting himself in the foot each time someone hands him a gun.

Sidney is annoying and self-righteous and insistent he doesn’t harbor the prejudices he so clearly carries (especially towards women, including Iris). Hansberry is not interested in placating the audience or in guiding them to a pre-determined conclusion with Sidney as surrogate — she just hands you the map. You have to decide if you’re going to get there, and how.

The beauty of Hansberry’s play almost makes up for Anne Kauffman’s production, which feels too unsure of itself to linger or make demands. Both Brosnahan and Isaac emit one-note performances that start high and strong but gradually deflate. Isaac, who is onstage almost the whole show, is at times charming and at times funny, but does not differentiate his performance enough through the first two acts. It is only in the third act’s devastation that Isaac finds something worth holding onto.

This third act brings both a foray into the surreal and the appearance of Gus Birney as Gloria, Iris’s younger sister who is hoping to marry Alton (Julian De Niro) and abandon her life as an escort. Birney’s wispy voice is perfect for the ethereal Gloria, whose presence may be an illusion in Kauffman’s more confident third act. Though the characters cavort on pills and find time slowing down, this portion of the play feels the most grounded.

Throughout, Iris and her sister Mavis (the hilarious Miriam Silverman, now a Tony nominee) have made all their choices based on Gloria’s, even if they don’t realize it. Gloria’s life as a sex worker, her drug use, and her depression bring the play into reality: Gone are the morality debates. What’s left is materiality, cold and sharp.

It is all the more disappointing, then, that the play’s first foray into the surreal, as Iris and Sidney play make-believe, falters. The scene is one of the only moments in which characters use the fire escape and balcony from Santiago Orjuela-Laverde, Andrew Moerdyk, and Kimie Nishikawa (the scenic design collective dots). The Brusteins’s playwright neighbor, David Ragin (Glenn Fitzgerald), often writes at his desk atop the main apartment like a guard in a watchtower. Kauffman gives him little else to do to show he is monitoring the Brusteins.

But maybe the Brusteins just aren’t as interesting as they think they are. Maybe this is the point. When she hears of David’s type of drama, Mavis bemoans that there aren’t more plays about ordinary people with ordinary problems. Despite Sidney’s more optimistic friends trudging up his dormant delusions of grandeur, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is essentially that kind of play (though without the straight-edged naturalism the apartment dwellers deride).

Sidney and Iris’s dreams and disagreements are quotidian and their tragedies all too common, but this relatability does not diminish them or the text. It folds them into the body politic they debate and resist; it is the regular, normal people of Hansberry’s world who will have the chance to change it. Or perhaps they won’t. Perhaps advocating anything is, as Hansberry posits, imposing totalitarianism on the rest of us.

The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is at the James Earl Jones Theatre through July 2. Get The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: Rachel Brosnahan and Oscar Isaac in The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)

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