'The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window' review — Oscar Isaac and Rachel Brosnahan lead a rare revival

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

Lorraine Hansberry’s 1964 drama The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window hasn't had a major New York revival in 50 years. That fact alone would make this play, which premiered on Broadway five years after A Raisin in the Sun, an event. Add Oscar Isaac as Sidney and Rachel Brosnahan as his wife, Iris, and the magnetism intensifies.

Despite the rarity factor and the pair of marquee stars, director Anne Kauffman’s revival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is a modestly engaging production of a meandering story about a marriage and a moment in time.

Window looks out on Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. The scenic design collective dots has conjured the Brustein apartment in time-capsule detail. Like in Seinfeld, decades later, Sidney’s door never seems to be locked, enabling others to enter and exit freely for drama’s sake.

Sidney is an idealist and an intellectual, prone to quoting great writers and, oddly, using affectations like “my boy” when talking to David (Glenn Fitzgerald), a gay playwright and upstairs neighbor. Iris is a wannabe actress who waits tables and has saved her tip money to see a shrink. She’s had plenty to discuss during two years of psychoanalysis, including that the story she’s told her husband about her Oklahoma upbringing is largely fiction. Her finest acting gig: Mrs. Brustein.

Five years into the marriage, cracks are showing. That Sidney sneers at Iris’s acting skills and derides her plans to do a TV commercial doesn’t help. Nor does the fact Sidney is a dreamer who does what he wants when he wants it.

Immediately after the failure of his last enterprise — “a place just to listen to good folk records” — he has somehow bought the Village Crier. “My little artsy-craftsy newspaper is going to stay out of politics,” he says.

Sidney admits he’s done trying to save the world, a retreat from human affairs a friend slyly calls “ostrich-cism.” But there’s an election going on, and Alton (Julian De Niro), a friend who’s involved with Iris’s sister Gloria (Gus Birney), a fashion model, so she claims, persuades Sidney to support the reform candidate Wally O’Hara (Andy Grotelueschen).

Sidney reluctantly agrees and then goes even further. He hangs a campaign poster boosting Wally in his apartment window. For Sidney, Wally’s fate – and his role in securing it – is brutal when he wakes up to the politician’s true colors. By this time, the Brustein marriage looks like a goner.

Clocking in at 3 hours, which includes an intermission, Hansberry’s play has plenty of sweep – maybe too much. It takes on racism, anti-Semitism, political corruption, suicide, homosexuality, and social activism. Performances are all over the map. At one point, three characters inexplicably sit below the elevated set to watch what’s happening.

Isaac (Star Wars) goes big in his star turn. He postures, pounces on furniture, wriggles on his back across the floor, and strums a banjo Llewyn Davis-style. Brosnahan (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) dances in her underwear and strikes chords of defiance and despair, yet she is a bit underpowered.

The indelible performance comes from Miriam Silverman as Iris’s married sister Mavis, whose life uptown is assumed to be square compared to the boho zone. “Everybody is his own hipster,” she tells Sidney in an outstanding scene.

In the end, the play is all about Sidney, Iris, and where their lives are going. Hansberry leaves room for a sign of hope.

The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is at the Harvey Theater at BAM Strong through March 24.

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

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