What do you do when moral outrage fails to motivate others? When all attempts at political change are met with complacency and intransigence? Sidney Brustein (Oscar Isaac) has belonged to every committee “to Save, to Free, to Abolish, Preserve, Reserve and Conserve that ever was,” with little to show for his efforts. So when a friend, Alton Scales (Julian De Niro), asks him to support a local reform candidate, Wally O’Hara (Andy Grotelueschen), he refuses. The newspaper he just bought will not discuss politics. “I simply can no longer bear the spectacle of power-driven insurgents trying at all cost to gain control of— the refreshment committee!”
In The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, and with Sidney Brustein, Lorraine Hansberry offers a “silhouette of the Western intellectual,” reading Sartre and Camus and “poised in hesitation before the flames of involvement.” Unable to remain on the sidelines, Sidney immediately breaks his oath, dedicating the newspaper to electing O’Hara. The results are mixed.
The personal lives of Sidney and his friends suggest that political change is difficult in interpersonal relationships, too. Sidney, who plays a Henry Higgins-like role for his wife, Iris (Rachel Brosnahan), can be cruel and controlling. He fixates on the idea that she is an Appalachian “mountain girl,” which bears only a slight relationship to the truth, and he is vicious about her ambition to be an actor. Alton fights to keep the name Willie Johnson alive, the name of a fifteen-year-old boy who died of an overdose, but he also spews homophobic bile. This is directed at David Ragin (Glenn Fitzgerald), a playwright who sympathizes with sex workers but turns into a vulture when he actually meets one. “Isn’t it the great tradition for writers and whores to share the world’s truths?” he asks Iris’ younger sister, Gloria (Gus Birney), immediately after meeting her. Such are the struggles of intersectionality.
This gives the impression of a self-serious play, and perhaps the most rewarding feature of Sidney Brustein is its comedy. Or rather, its satire, which is combined with a genuine compassion for all of the characters. Most are repulsive in one sense or another—the source of the humor—yet each is more complicated than their initial impression. Consider Iris’ older sister, Mavis (Miriam Silverman). Iris calls her, to her face, “the greatest of all anti-Semites.” Sidney, more forgiving, goes with “Mother of all Philistines.” Mavis is materialistic, puritanical, and easy to be smug about. But in the second act, she recites Medea in (modern) Greek, and it’s her sex life that shocks Sidney. “There are no squares,” she tells him. “Everybody is his own hipster.” Plus, she gets the biggest laugh of the night. When informed that David, who she’d like to match with Gloria, is gay, she considers, “Well, maybe she would want a rest…”
Admittedly, Sidney Brustein is not a perfect play. The second act doesn’t sustain the energy of the first, and the ending, in particular, is unsatisfying. Perhaps that is because the problem Hansberry raises is in some sense unresolvable. Or at least, she doesn’t have the answers. Still, it remains engaging and provocative, and this revival, with a strong cast, makes the case for its place in our canon. How about Les Blancs next?
The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window runs through July 2nd at the James Early Jones Theatre. 138 W. 48th Street New York, NY. 2 hours 45 minutes. One intermission. Photograph by Julieta Cervantes.