Lorraine Hansberry’s “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” Offers Up Complex Women and Self-Criticism in a Quasi-Solipsistic Depiction of the 60s

There are those cultural events that feel too good to be true – many stars align to create a perfectly satisfying contribution, almost all-encompassing in its thoughtoutness. On suggesting this idea, it now seems impossible to conjure up any examples, but allow me to attempt: Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, or Paul McCartney’s ill-fated 2013 commission for the New York City Ballet Ocean’s Kingdom. These project types evoke the German psychological idea of gestalt, where the totality of an object surpasses the mere makeup of its parts. This is how I felt about BAM’s recently closed (March 24th) production of Lorraine Hansberry’s “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.” To me, its components – casting two actors known for portraying characters from the play’s era (Midge Maisel for Rachel Brosnahan, and Llewyn Davis for Oscar Issac), the importance of BAM as a community and cultural institution of New York City, and the playwright herself – promised an experience: an homage to the project’s components, while contributing to current conversations about Lorraine Hansberry, a woman’s whose artistic, and narrative potential outshone her life.

It is difficult, for me, to consider Lorraine Hansberry without the broader context of the 1960s. I’m currently finishing a thesis on James Baldwin, and the two were dear friends. Their friendship embodied a quandary of their era: how can one be an artist in a time of political plight? The dilemma is deepened when considering their race. As Black Americans, at the start of The Civil Rights Movement, would the attempt to contribute to society culturally thwart their political progress? Could art be made at a time when “more” pressing questions were posed, or must one enterprise be abandoned for the other? Is the solution to fold the two into each other, making all work political? Hansberry didn’t live long enough to have this tension play out, she died in 1965; but Baldwin scholars will note the decline of his artistic novelty as his career progressed and wonder if he wanted to be known for his novels, while his polemic essays (whose artistry cannot be denied) were the stronger of his written contributions. The play as a medium for political discourse is by no means a new concept, one need not look further than the entire history of Western theater (of which this work provides a bit of insight) as proof, but the 60s are remembered for the seamlessness with which arts and politics were paired. When analyzing this rarely staged play by Ms. Hansberry, it seems incomplete to disregard these macroscopic realities. While The Sign In Sidney Brustein’s Window tells a story of a smattering of characters experiencing a singular passage of time, the narrative arch is more than the three hours the play takes up. The show is ripe with implications, metaphors, and snippets of paradigms. Missing these by analyzing the play through a singular production is a lost opportunity to celebrate Hansberry’s look at the endlessly complicated, and sometimes fallible, nature of human communication.

 The association of play and context, which also considers the fact that this was the last full play Hansberry wrote, is on full display on arriving at The BAM Harvey Theater. An entire exhibit, “‘Art is Energy:’ Lorraine Hansberry, World Builder,” introduces Lorraine Hansberry as a person, artist, and political activist. Perhaps the audience was prepped on thinking “globally” in consuming this work. The exhibit features archival pieces of Hansberry’s correspondence, and political writings, as well as a stunning selection of photos – her face aglow with the ebullient wit of 1960s style. The exhibit notes her involvement with the Communist Party and her contribution to political publications like SNCC’s The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality. Also featured is Allison Saar’s statue of Hansberry, currently touring major US cities after its stint in Times Square. BAM, it seems, has taken it upon itself to remind the world of Hansberry’s significance.

The set of Sidney recreates a living room of a small West Village apartment. I immediately thought of the film adaptation of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in The Park (the play premiered in 1963 with the 1960s heartthrob Robert Redford) which tells the story of a young couple’s first days of marriage. The set’s confines prove to be a necessary tool as the play progresses. The walls of the apartment seek to contain the rampantness of the characters’ dynamics as they unfold. Without a barrier or structure insight, the scale of this play may have felt tectonic.

We’re first introduced to the titular character of Sidney (played by Oscar Issac), a young Jewish (1) intellectual whose enterprise running a Village Coffee House named Walden (after the memoir’s title), has failed. As Sidney and his friend Alton (played by Julian De Niro, whose performance beautifully captures the cloying vulnerability and uncertainty of youth) unpack crates of glasses to store in the apartment’s living room, the two men recount Sidney’s failed business venture, and general out-of-touchness, eventually moving beyond the topic of newly acquired drinkware to Alton’s disappointment in Sidney’s apoliticality. Alton, one of the few Black characters in the play, represents the political engagement Sidney’s cynicism-brought-on-by-severe-heediness has dismissed – delivers some excellent retorts, telling Sidney that he admires the wrong part of Thoreau. Meanwhile, Sidney’s wife Iris (Brosnahan) enters the apartment from work, waitressing at a local diner dressed in a yellow uniform resembling a costume from Grease. Carrying groceries, Iris stays in the kitchen visibly annoyed by the accumulated souvenirs from the now-defunct Walden. Iris’ frustration at her husband’s constant whims is palpable. Alton, detecting this, leaves the apartment. Iris starts to undress and sits next to her husband on the couch. In the presence of his beautiful wife, Sidney can’t resist but tap into the throes of their shared passions, even though she’s in the midst of discussing her forlornness for her seemingly failed acting career. Iris rebuffs Sidney’s advances, and starts discussing her discoveries from analysis. The scene catches the first of their troubles: Sidney’s view of his wife is stunted, dating from the origins of their relationship. While he’s allowed himself the time for change and identity development, he can’t seem to grant the same space to her. Iris too, in turn, falls victim to this dynamic. She wants to live up to her husband’s ideation of her, but his conception is almost entirely somatic – so much so that Iris feels she can’t change her long flowing hair as she tries to figure out how to be Joan Baez enough for him.

Broshnahan’s performance was refreshing and surprising. From the promotional video for the play, I feared she would rely on a tactic she employed in Season 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel when she dates the doctor Benjamin Ettenberg. Faced with Benjamin’s impressive career, and palpable charm, Midge loses her zest, her most notable and distinguished character trait. Many scenes show her in a love-locked smirk, much like the one she gives to Sidney (Oscar) in the promotional video above. For Brosnahan, in season Two of Maisel and in the promotional video for Sidney, she’s found herself in a mutual joke of her partner’s grandiosity while playing the role of his supporting character: lover, agent, and advocate. Instead, on stage, Brosnahan maintains a steadfast commitment to her changing and confused personhood. She pushes back at Sidney, well aware that though she loves him, both he and their marriage confine her.

Sidney’s apoliticality isn’t based on a profound fear of partisanship, or the mere promise of progress, but instead an inability to commit to anything. He toys with parts of himself without ever cultivating them, yet wants to maintain a reputation as progressive. The closing of Walden leads him to take on a newspaper where he’ll try out journalism, and cultural criticism, and make his way into politics. The newspaper forces him to endorse Wally O’Hara as a candidate for city politics. Still, he’s a professional dilettante driven by acquired topical knowledge and righteous confidence in his own perspective. It’s refreshing to see these qualities attributed to a male character, which Oscar plays with commitment and dedication, as a woman picks up the pieces. The dynamic is honest and breeds resentment in Iris. She’s forced to cast aside her own aspirations – even with an acute sense of dread over acting, it is what she wants to do – for stability’s sake. But, even with Iris’ concessions, Sidney is to remain the adult in theory, as Iris silently carries the task out in practice. The justification can be understood when Iris confesses to thinking Kant was an exaggerated way to say “cannot” prior to their marrying. Sidney lives in his ideas. Iris is forced to live down on earth.

Iris and Sidney’s interactions make for a genuine emotional response, not only in highlighting the daunting task of ever possibly understanding someone but also because of Iris’ complexity – particularly when considering Neil Diamond’s play. Barefoot in The Park (1963, film in 1967) paints a much simpler portrait. In Barefoot, Corie, the female protagonist, fulfills the role of vivacious wanderluster next to her reticent lawyer husband, Paul (also played by Redford in the film adaptation). Corie (a young Jane Fonda in the film) spends her days energized but stuck at home. She is a doting wife but is dedicated to ensuring she and Paul are more eccentric than the typical young couple in New York City. The tension in the play exists when Paul gets fed up with Corie’s adventurous spirit, and Corie finds Paul square. There are suggestions of divorce, and amusing moments in a dilapidated apartment, with a broken skylight, but the play doesn’t go much deeper. In the end, their marriage is saved by Paul letting loose and hopping around Washington Square Park barefoot and drunk, fulfilling a rather limited idea of character development, and suggesting that a singular instance of change will make for a smoother future. The movie ends with the audience believing their happiness is likely to continue. Simon doesn’t give much more than a fantastical tale.

Hansberry doesn’t let us off so easily. She is presenting a work of solipsistic theater – a play watching itself. It isn’t meta because Hansberry doesn’t try to outsmart the audience or curry favor with out-of-the-box thinking. The play isn’t underscored by cleverness but instead presents a packed narrative without clear answers in sight. The fear that the character David’s, the Brusteins’ gay playwright neighbor, work may evoke the naturalism of Ibsen comes across as generative: Hansberry sprinkled in this reference to place herself in the historiography of theatrical approaches. Hansberry’s dedication to the interiority of her characters, highlighting the occasional unbridgeable bypass in human communication, places her quite at odds with the Ibsenonian tradition. It’s fitting that Sidney Brustein’s run overlaps with Jessica Chastain’s (Issac’s Juilliard classmate) performance in A Doll’s House. The minimalist adaptation doesn’t do much more than re-present Ibsen’s dated structure. The play ends with Nora revealing the content of her thoughts in a long-winded monologue; analogous to Anthony Perkins’ confession scene in Psycho. In 2023, it’s surprising the play wasn’t presented with a fresher approach.

Hansberry’s solipsism leaves no stone unturned. Every character has depth, confusion, and contradiction. For instance, the Brusteins want the cachet of having a diverse friend group, but, as Alton points out, in the attempt to see him as equal, they disregard his Blackness. The best example of this is perhaps Iris’ eldest sister Mavis, a wealthy Uptown housewife brilliantly played by Miriam Silverman, who offers the best line in the whole play. Walking into the apartment filled with Sidney and Iris’ friends, she exclaims “The things you people think you have to talk about!” It couldn’t act as a better barometer of the motivation of the characters– they are plagued by what they ought to be doing. Marvis’ reveal of her own complications, that her husband has another relationship and child that she condones for the continuity of her home life, profoundly impacts Sidney. Suddenly, it seems a person has gotten through to him. He understands he must grow up and commit to a decision, and he finally sees a woman as an actualized person. His ability to comprehend Mavis, beyond the veneer, gives the audience hope that he’ll be able to transpose this insight toward his wife.

The weakest part of the play is the last scene of the third act, which turns Hansberry’s inherent solipsism into a formal directorial choice. The scene shows the arrival of the much-talked-about youngest sister of Iris and Mavis, Gloria (I’m afraid I agree with Helen Shaw’s critique of actress Gus Birney’s performance), as she returns from her life on the road as a call girl/model. The scene features Sidney and Gloria, with David making an appearance. Meanwhile, Mavis, Iris, and Alton are seated on folded chairs beneath the stage. Looking on, these three characters “observe” as Gloria and Sidney collapse into a drug-infused haze denouncing responsibilities and morality. Gloria and Sidney end up in a lustful embrace making out on the couch as David watches. This was a directorial decision by Anne Kauffman. An explicit mention of Gloria and Sidney kissing is never mentioned in Hansberry’s stage directions. It seems like a half-hearted choice. How will the two contend with this decision? Even if they fail to remember it, how can they possibly face Iris? Will they be able to, or is that the point? When Hansberry’s biting self-awareness is made explicit, the play loses sight of itself. The kiss doesn’t end up mattering. The scene ends with Gloria downing a bottle of sleeping pills and dying.

At the end of the play, the three characters get up from the chairs. Iris comes back on stage, and into the apartment, (she had left in the previous act, and also cut her hair) as Sidney is spurred into action to show up for his wife and her sisters. Whether he’s fueled by the guilt of Gloria’s death or a profound awakening and awareness of his responsibilities to his wife, isn’t entirely clear. Sidney’s potential for actual change seemed quashed after the scene with Gloria. At the play’s end, Iris and Sidney reconnect. Iris cries on Sidney’s shoulder. Their connection appears more honest and vulnerable. Sidney promises her everything will be alright, he’s taken care of it, finally. But Iris seems to be back in the marriage’s entrapment. The confirmation of their being together isn’t happy, just what transpires next. Who’s to say what the next day will bring? Iris could leave Sidney again. Sidney could confess to having kissed Gloria. Their marriage isn’t perfect and the grief of Gloria’s death may only be a temporary solution. The audience knows there’s more to this story than the ending shows.

Most reviews of Sidney Brustein have called the play clunky – too many ideas and identities explored. Ms. Hansberry indeed packs a punch, and perhaps her play fails to actualize, the necessary component of gestalt is never achieved and her ingredients shine brighter than their sum. But more likely is that the unrelentingness of the play stems from the veracity of Hansberry’s perceptions of an era of great changes in mores: the very many standpoints engaged in a conversation, the competing impulses for intellectualism, activism, stability, love, and the limitations to any identity acquires – Bohemians, commercial actors, politicians, or squares. No one is left uncritiqued. Sidney Brustein seems more like Hansberry trying to get her ideas and experiences out there just in time. Maybe the play should be interpreted as an attempt rather than a finished work.

If Hansberry’s play captures anything, it’s the irreducibility of life. This may make for an occasionally clunky narrative, but life has been known, occasionally, to be clunky too.

1. Hansberry also lived at a time when there was a significant and robust coalition between the Black and Jewish communities in New York City, which allows for ease in her writing a Jewish protagonist. His representation doesn’t stereotype.

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