What’s the difference between caring and only pretending to care? That might feel like a newfangled concern in the era of internet activism, when privileged people rush to deploy hashtags of the moment or black squares and then later complain about “ally fatigue” or accuse one another of virtue signaling. There’s always the possibility that what seems like compassion is only a performance of it, that a slogan has no commitment behind it. Of course there’s nothing new about the problem of intention and action. Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, first performed on Broadway in 1964, has come back to BAM in 2023 to reveal itself as the great forgotten play about the dynamics of posting.
The sign in question goes up outside the window of a Greenwich Village apartment owned by Sidney Brustein, a listless Jewish countercultural intellectual who has just tried and failed to open a bar named Walden Pond. “Your trouble,” his friend Alton (Julian De Niro) teases him, “is that you admire the wrong parts of Thoreau,” which is to say he likes the aesthetics but ignores the political commitments. As played by Oscar Isaac, the current crown prince of woolen heartthrobs, Sidney is full of rambunctious romantic enthusiasm but little follow-through. He plays the banjo, dreams of a cabin in the woods, and fetishizes the country aspects of his goyish Oklahoma-born struggling actress wife, Iris (Rachel Brosnahan, within the realm of Mrs. Maisel but with a much greater range on display). His latest project, after the collapse of Walden Pond, is a local newspaper, a Voice stand-in called the Village Crier. At first, he wants the Crier to stay out of politics, but soon he gets excited about a new reform candidate named Wally O’Hara (Andy Grotelueschen). So, to Iris’s distress, up goes an endorsement. Sidney has thrown himself behind a cause, and the question becomes whether he’ll stick to it and, later, whether the cause itself is worth it.
The sign itself looms large, a big white sheet with black lettering decrying “bossism” that hangs on the fire escape outside Brustein’s onstage apartment (cramped for the time, enviable by current standards, designed by the group Dots). The banner stays in the mind even as the play itself wanders away from that plot to introduce a swath of characters in Sidney and Iris’s circle. Hansberry wrote Sidney Brustein after the success of A Raisin in the Sun, which had made her, at 29, the first Black woman to have a play on Broadway. Here, she shifted her field of vision from a Black family in Chicago to the concerns of artists and activists she knew and lived with in the Village. The play’s dialogue teems with of-the-moment concerns and references to everyone from Castro to Camus. How best to protest the anti-gay sex laws? How to make peace with action in the grip of existentialism? What about the possibility of nuclear annihilation? Also, is it selling out to act in TV commercials?
When Sidney Brustein premiered in 1964, it was met tepidly by critics and audiences, perhaps because Hansberry was working outside her usual lane, writing primarily about white characters. That first Broadway production, which starred Rita Moreno, received support from Hansberry’s fellow artists to keep it running but closed, after 101 performances, a few days before she died at 34. After a single 1972 Broadway revival, the play mostly went into the trunk, overshadowed by A Raisin in the Sun. Anne Kauffman, directing this revival after staging another production of it in Chicago in 2016, is making a persuasive case for bringing Sidney Brustein into the canon. This version of the play, compiled and revised from various iterations of the work, has a sturdy three-hour, three-act tragic core with Sidney (whom Kauffman likes to call a “Jewish Hamlet” in the press) in a self-destructive descent.
Yet Hansberry resists a structure as simple as that. The drama has all the compelling antsiness of a sophomore album trying not to hit the same beats as an acclaimed debut. Through David (Glenn Fitzgerald), a gay playwright upstairs who is writing something about two men living in a refrigerator, Hansberry references more experimental work — another character jokingly calls him Jean Genet — and seems to stage an argument with herself about the value of sticking to realism. To that end, in both the writing and Kauffman’s staging, the texture of some scenes dissolves: Sidney and Iris have a conversation on a rooftop as if they are off in the woods, and in the second act, a few of the actors assemble in front of the audience on folding chairs to observe the action. Hansberry seems to be on the way toward something else, future work that, had she lived, might have become even more abstract or gone in another direction.
In contrast to those moments, some engines of the plot are more shopworn, particularly the arc between the revolutionary Alton and Iris’s sister, Gloria (Gus Birney), whose jet-set lifestyle is soon revealed to be bought and paid for. The tragic white-passing idealist and the tragic sex worker are both predictable, acting more as symbols than as people. (Among a uniformly strong cast of actors, it doesn’t help that De Niro is the least comfortable onstage.) Better are the characters with more contradictions, like Sidney and Iris, whose sparring and jousting Isaac and Brosnahan seem to revel in. Just when you may sympathize with one or the other, Hansberry gives that character something horrible to say, and the polite Brooklyn audience flinches (which the actors also seem to enjoy). Miriam Silverman, as Iris’s uptown sister, Mavis, who has married into respectability, excels at that gambit, playing pitiable and understanding from one angle, then vicious from another.
Hansberry’s play holds up people like Mavis, Sidney, and Iris to the light for inspection. What’s to be done with these selfish, self-regarding purported allies? Then, like someone cutting open rough-hewn rock, she sets the actions of her plot upon them. The play is harsh, but as it pares its hero down, it reveals something hopeful. For Sidney, posting a sign isn’t much in itself, but it goads him onward, the way a Greek tragedy pushes everyone toward calamity and then a clarity of sight. Hansberry has this hope that, from a gesture, a streak of actual commitment might be revealed in Sidney like a vein of gold.
The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is at the BAM Harvey Theater through March 24.