BEHOLD "THE SIGN IN SIDNEY BRUSTEIN'S WINDOW"
Lorraine Hansberry knew.
The poignant insufficiencies of well-intentioned political activism was a blindered secret of the activist 1960’s that we can learn from today, but Hansberry grasped it all — the egoistic fissures underlying the nobility; the fact that no-one’s ideological ecology can (or should ) be perfectly pure. To insist otherwise is to lie, especially to oneself.
And so, she wrote a play about it. On her cancer death bed, practically. A sprawling, extravagant play that she finally titled: The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (after flirting with The Sign in Jenny Reed’s Window. This sign had to be hung by a man.).
It’s a play that combusts as you watch it. Like so much gloriously explosive, expended hot air.
I quite loved it.
Plenty has been written about The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, and now plenty more will be written, yet the play — Hansberry’s second, and final, after the towering A Raisin in the Sun — went silent right after it opened on Broadway in 1964 and closed in a matter of three months. I’m not going to add inordinately to the pontificating plentitude, or even try to account for the play’s long absence. Something about the way The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is written defies analysis, blessedly, or maybe transcends it, though you can describe the play’s action and characters endlessly. Sidney is a conscientious reformer, and a cad who cannot get out of his own way, but is never a caricature. (Lorraine Hansberry did not do caricature. Her characters, no matter how comic or even satirical, are too rich in inner contradictions and too touching in their insecurities to be anything but human.) Sidney’s waif of a wife believes she is Sidney’s inferior, ideologically and especially intellectually, but she is, in fact, outgrowing him. Her older sister is, and is not, the drudge of a suburban housewife she readily admits to being. Their younger sister is a blonde All-American golden girl and a call-girl, for real.
I could go on. The playwright in the garret upstairs is queer and uncloseted and about to become a star in spite of himself. The bi-racial, radical young ideologue who loves Sidney’s young sister-in-law has little capacity for empathy beyond race. The lovable old neighborhood politico espousing “reform” is utterly corrupt and will take Sidney down with him.
What they all add up to is not so much a narrative (though there is plenty of plot) as an intensely theatrical emotional state comprised, contradictorily, yet simultaneously, of rue (disillusion) and agitation (hope). No moral is imparted. So I, too, will steer clear.
The show (at BAM) is (as you may have heard) a hot ticket, with a hot cast. Do not hold that against them. In defiance of the dictum that screen stars onstage will usually disappoint, Oscar Isaac is a mythic Sidney, and Rachel Brosnahan matches him, radiant and reflective as his ever-evolving spouse. Both performances are Shakespearean, ultimately, though Brosnahan’s fervent wit and Isaac’s thrilling torrent of language and emotion are all Shakespeare-by-way-of-Hansberry. The love that their characters share — overwhelming, passionate, nakedly (hurtfully) truthful — was something I wanted to take home with me; a souvenir of Lorraine Hansberry.
The rest of the cast is pretty starry too — there is a DeNiro (son) and a Birney (Reed, daughter) among them. Shrewdly directed by Anne Kauffman, they all get the difficult work of this confounding play done.
The tickets are too damn expensive, which is a shame. I say this, not as a personal complaint — mine were “press,” thank you — but for “the masses,” like me, who otherwise couldn’t afford to go. Lots and lots of people should see The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window and then take it home and think about it. It is imperfect, like our nation’s union. And we should deal with that.