We made one of our twice-a-year visits to New York theater last month to catch almost certain Tony nominees and a couple of shows that opened just after we were there last fall. Intermittently before the certain-to-be-strange June 11 Tony Awards, we will share reviews of seven productions and performances that may or may not win, may or may not tour. The shows are: Life of Pi, Parade, Sweeney Todd, Some Like It Hot, Kimberly Akimbo, Peter Pan Goes Wrong and The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. Links to other reviews in this series can be found at the bottom as the reviews run. Last November, we reviewed contenders Leopoldstadt, & Juliet and Death of a Salesman
By Bill Hirschman
No ticket buyer today thinks twice about productions appropriately setting Hamlet in 1600 or The Glass Menagerie in 1945.
But it takes an extra effort from 21st Century audiences to accept and immerse themselves in serious theater pieces not only written in mid-1960s but specifically meant to capture what was then the “normal” cacophony of colliding social, artistic and political ferment.
Those who had been alive at the time are hypersensitive to when the vibe rings false (as they choose to remember it) and those who weren’t alive are somewhat puzzled by the diffuse climate that often seems hard to believe even when it’s accurate.
Enter into the discussion Lorraine Hansberry’s rarely-revived last drama, 1964’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window about a liberal couple and their circle in Greenwich Village dealing with idealism vs. cynicism about the social tumult outside, as well as more traditional problems in their marriage.
This production unexpectedly moved from a limited but nearly sold-out off-Broadway run and slipped into the suddenly vacant James Earl Jones Theatre shortly before Tony eligibility closed when another show shuttered before opening.
The result is an evening worth seeing (and worth someone mounting locally) with several virtues. But patrons should acknowledge that it is dogged by a sense of an undisciplined roller coaster within Hansberry’s passionate sincere script. Indeed, that aspect may be part of its charm and faithfulness to the period, but it’s naggingly noticeable.
It reminded me of local company, Slow Burn Theatre, which knowingly used to mount musicals that had inherent flaws, but which has virtues worth showcasing,
While the play is solidly set in its time, the questions about ethics, politics, pretensions, responsibility to the community and a clarion call to activism echo resoundingly to anyone watching this evening’s newscast. We in 2023 have to nod at, as one character says of 1964: “The world is about to crack down the middle.”
Director Anne Kauffman has elicited solid performances from film star Oscar Isaac as Sidney in his Broadway debut (although he has fine stage credits) and Rachel Brosnahan (who was on stage before creating Mrs. Maisel) as his wife, Iris. Add in the show-stealing role from Miriam Silverman as Mavis, Iris’ conservative uptown matronly sister, as effective now as when Alice Ghostley won the supporting actress Tony in 1965 for the same character.
Sidney is an intellectual writer living in Late Bohemia whose idealism slams into the morass of local politics and corruption. He has just shuttered a ludicrous folk nightclub called Walden Pond and is disillusioned enough with society that he is swearing off involvement. He says he wants to emulate the hermitage of Thoreau until someone reminds him that Thoreau was an anti-war activist. He won’t even put up a campaign poster for Wally O’Hara, an acquaintance and reform candidate for City Hall.
Iris is a struggling New York actress – not blessed with enough talent — trying to find herself as an individual in this marital unit. She has a background from Appalachia, although some of the details she cites will come into question.
The two love each other but Sidney’s personality carelessly careens between affection and antagonism as they verbally explore their evolving relationship. Their differences burst through in pointed exchanges of the kind of pain that can only be inflicted by people who know each other that intimately.
Their circle includes Alton, a Black Marxist activist in love with Iris’ beautiful sister Gloria, seemingly always on the road as a high-class model. Alton finally gets Sidney out of his withdrawal and persuades him to editorially support O’Hara, posting the titular campaign sign.
Iris and Sidney’s rocky relationship melts down. Finally, Iris leaves Sidney and starts a job that is a major compromise to her dreams.
Alton learns that Gloria is actually a well-paid prostitute and, in a surprising move, he angrily rejects her. She commits suicide in her inability to deal with the rejection. In response, Sidney, who once again had sworn off politics when learning of Wally’s own corruption, now pledges to use Gloria’s death as impetus to return to fight for injustice. In a final blackout, Iris has returned to mourn her sister and a shred exists that a tentative reconciliation might be possible
It’s a slightly unfocused story with Sidney in particular ricocheting back and forth between different modes from loyal to abusive. But all of the characters are complex and fascinating. Iris’ judgmental sister Mavis is a superb creation by Hansberry, Kauffman and Silverman — an uptown upscale pillar who blithely recites antisemitic and racist tropes, yet who is far, far deeper and more complex than we immediately assess.
The ensuing three-hour, three-act journey is part tragedy but punctuated with plenty of razor barbed wits about society, culture and the characters’ personalities. Kauffman’s only obvious problem is that she doesn’t have the cast hold for laughs when the characters are regularly unleashing bon mots and witticisms.
She deftly handles the non-stop torrent of words and the roller coaster of emotional levels. But for a talky play, she has succeeded in investing every other moment with physical action from pacing the room to touching someone’s shoulder.
Isaac, better known for films like Inside Llewyn Davis, is a perfect choice for the complicated Sidney who can be sexy and supportive one moment, then abusive and self-centered, perhaps insightful about the state of the world, then blind to what his words are doing to those around him. His inherent charisma is crucial because Sidney almost never leaves the stage.
Brosnahan deserves even more praise for winning over the audience because Iris is so clearly chasing a dream she can never achieve, plus is willing to put up with so much grief from Sidney and who finally finds the courage to forge a new path, albeit with compromises.
Hansberry wrote much of the script as she was coping with the cancer that killed her at age 34 two days after closing night. Based on concerns she discussed from her bed, Robert Nemiroff as literary executor made alterations around 1986. Reportedly, Kauffman and others have tweaked the script a bit further.
For all the foibles of the script, Hansberry penned priceless passages such as Iris describing her love for Sidney, and especially Alton’s explosive attack on racism exemplified by the struggles of his parents coping with bringing home leftovers from the white homes his mother served.
Personal note: I read a paperback edition likely in the early 1970s because I wanted to read Raisin in the Sun, and the two plays were packaged in the same volume. It included an inspiring essay by Nemiroff (Hansberry’s ex-husband, steadfast friend and producer) about how the New York professional theater world banded together and campaigned for the show to survive 101 performances after initially doomed for a lack of attendance.
I remember not being able to completely plug into the printed script until the second to last page in which Sidney fights back against the powers that be and delivers a mouth-droppingly eloquent and heartfelt elegy over Gloria’s suicide. I’ve been using that passage, unfortunately, when asked to speak at funeral after funeral after funeral. It ends “I hurt terribly today, and that hurt is desperation, and desperation is – energy, and energy can move things.” Thank you, Lorraine,
Two notes: The play is slated to close July 2. And by the way, the Jones is the former century-old Court Theatre and has been significantly upgraded to include (shock and awe) elevators. (Applause),
The production is nominated for best revival of a play, and best supporting actress in a play for Silverman.
Review of Peter Pan Goes Wrong, click here.