‘The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window’ Broadway Review: Oscar Isaac and Rachel Brosnahan Do a Lot With Not Very Much

Lorraine Hansberry’s play is rarely revived, and now we know why

Julieta Cervantes

A version of this “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” review first ran for its Off Broadway opening on Feb. 27.

No, “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” is not some amazing rediscovered masterpiece. But yes, Oscar Isaac and Rachel Brosnahan make it worth seeing, especially for its promising but deeply flawed first act.

“The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” was Lorraine Hansberry’s 1964 follow-up to her Broadway debut five years earlier, “A Raisin in the Sun.” She worked from her hospital bed while battling pancreatic cancer, mining rewrites during rehearsals. The play went on to run three months on Broadway and closed two days before Hansberry died at age 34 on Jan. 12, 1965. Revivals have been rare in the intervening years, and this starry one that opened Thursday on Broadway at the James Earl Jones Theater makes it clear why. The production had previously played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music earlier this year.

It’s difficult to imagine more engaging performances than those being given by Isaac and Brosnahan. They portray the young and troubled married couple that lives in Greenwich Village and are repeatedly called “bohemians.” Sidney is a political activist who goes from one failed entrepreneurial gig to another. Iris is a waitress who longs to be an actress. They’re in love, and from the way Isaac and Brosnahan go after each other, it’s evident the sex is great on a scale of Stella and Stanley Kowalski.

When we meet Sidney and Iris, however, there’s more quarreling than lovemaking going on. Sidney is quickest with the insults. Put him in a room with another person, and there’s bound to be a fight. Iris is spared only when other victims wander into their apartment, and they include Sidney’s young ex-Communist friend (Julian De Niro), his conventional uptown sister-in-law (Miriam Silverman), the gay upstairs-neighbor playwright (Glenn Fitzgerald), an avant-garde artist who is designing Sidney’s recently acquired newspaper (Raphael Nash Thompson) and a leftist political candidate (Andy Grotelueschen), whom Sidney somehow finds time to manage.

When Isaac and Brosnahan are onstage alone, “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” delivers the theatrical power of Ruth and Walter Lee Younger’s tragically compromised marriage in “A Raisin in the Sun.” Both couples can’t begin to fulfill the American Dream that’s been jammed into their respective heads.

The first act of “Sidney Brustein’s Window” lasts 90 minutes, and about 45 minutes of it is the production’s most compelling as Isaac and Brosnahan love and slug it out under Anne Kauffman’s direction. There is another 45 minutes, however, when Sidney and Iris interact with the other characters, all of whom should go back to the Herb Gardner comedy from which they came. Most cringe-worthy is Silverman’s conservative sister Mavis, a doppelgänger for the conservative brother Nick Burns in “A Thousand Clowns,” which opened on Broadway two years before Hansberry’s play.

Since Sidney and Iris’ marriage essentially ends at the end of Act 1, there’s no action left to dramatize during the almost-as-long second act. Iris disappears for most of its 80 minutes, and Isaac is reduced to a drunk who listens while the supporting characters are given a moment – a very extended moment – to rant about racism (De Niro), an unfaithful husband (Silverman) and the emptiness of success (Fitzgerald).

A new character (the barely intelligible Gus Birney) enlivens things a bit because she looks and acts like a streetwalker (costumes by Brenda Abbandandolo). Her outfit and hair (by Leah Loukas) don’t lie, and after 15 minutes, this prostitute with a heart of tin has committed suicide in the Brustein bathroom. As records go, it may be the fastest suicide in the history of the theater.

And there’s something else that’s phony about this cliché of a character. How could her fiancé (De Niro) not know that his girlfriend, made up for “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” is not having sex with other men for money? Racism may be the least of this guy’s problems.

Before this tragic episode inspires way too much onstage analysis, the prostitute is invited upstairs by the gay guy so she can watch him and his new boyfriend have sex. Fitzgerald manages to be wonderfully enigmatic in his request, while Isaac acts drunk and Kauffman, for her part as director, distracts us from the absurd theatricality of it all by cleverly bringing Brosnahan, De Niro and Silverman into the audience so they can observe the action in silence. They’re a kind of silent chorus, which relates back to something Mavis has told Sidney about her Greek-American father. Hansberry’s play is chockfull of references to all sorts of mythological characters.  

Sidney and Iris reunite at the end so she can tell him what a fool he was to back the wrong political candidate. Why a would-be actress with no political chops knows this and Sidney doesn’t is not explained despite “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” lasting nearly three hours.