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NYC Theater Review—“The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” with Oscar Isaac and Rachel Brosnahan at BAM

The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window 
Written by Lorraine Hansberry
Directed by Anne Kauffman
Performances through March 24, 2023
BAM Strong Harvey Theatre, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, NY
Rachel Brosnahan and Oscar Isaac in The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window
(photo: Julieta Cervantes)
By turns amusing and melodramatic, cringy and tragic, Lorraine Hansberry’s sprawling The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window—the author’s follow to A Raisin in the Sun, which took Broadway by storm in 1959—is an intelligent but flawed mess that still feels relevant, six unsettling decades later.
Written in 1964 and set in a West Village flat, the play follows a couple, Sidney Brustein and his wife Iris, as they come to terms with the limits of their idealism. Sidney’s latest venture, running a small Village Voice-like weekly, takes the place of his most recent failure, running a nightclub. Iris is a failed actress still desperately hoping for her big break as she slings hash at a local diner. Their days and nights are filled with smoke, drink and ongoing arguments in which Sidney devastatingly insults his wife about her lack of either acting talent or true ideals, which he usually walks back.
When they’re not at each other’s throats, Sidney and Iris welcome guests to their apartment in a revolving-door fashion, akin to a sitcom. Alton, a young radical who’s also a light-skinned Black man; David, a brooding playwright from the upstairs apartment; Wally, another longtime radical who’s running for city council; Max, a colleague who designs the the new weekly’s cover for Sidney; and Iris’ sisters—the older and seemingly straitlaced Mavis, and the younger Gloria, a “model” in Florida—all hover around the couple, each entering or exiting so Hansberry can show another angle of the couple’s volatile relationship along with the limits of being a real liberal.
As in A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry treats serious subject matter with a light touch—not superficially but also not ponderously. The problem with The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is that, unlike Raisin’s laser focus, it encompasses so much—idealism, racism, sexism, misogyny, political corruption, for starters—that it shortchanges itself. Supposedly, Hansberry might have tweaked parts of Brustein if she wasn’t battling the pancreatic cancer that would kill her at age 34 as the play’s first Broadway production was closing. 
It’s rarely been rarely staged since, instead accumulating the baggage of a white elephant in intervening 60 years. Anne Kaufmann, who directed a production in Chicago a few years ago, does the honors in Brooklyn, with a nicely-paced rhythm that keeps things moving for a still too-long three hours. The particulars of the Brusteins’ world are well developed: the collective dots’ authentically lived-in set, Brenda Abbandandolo’s spot-on costumes, John Torres’ incisive lighting and Bray Poor’s imaginative sound design.
There’s the occasional directorial misstep, as when Kaufman has Iris and Mavis sit in front of the audience and watch the sad meeting between Sidney and Gloria that leads to an intimate kiss after she admits that Alton—who was head over heels in love with her—is cutting her off after discovering that she is a sex worker. Otherwise, Kaufmann makes sure that the actors honestly serve Hansberry’s words, and the harmonious supporting ensemble is led by Miriam Silverman, whose forceful Mavis emerges as fully-realized character rather than the stereotype she could have been in lesser hands. 
Oscar Isaac’s Sidney and Rachel Brosnahan’s Iris are a believably authentic couple, imperfect but loving. The play’s final scene speaks shatteringly in its pauses and silences between the barely uttered words, as Isaac, Brosnahan and Kaufman get to the heart of the poetry in Hansberry’s uneven but compelling exploration of humanity. 

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