It is so easy, especially when wandering the prettier streets of the West Village, to lapse into the temptation of imagining the Greenwich Village of the 1960s as an idyllic urban utopia. Certainly, the producers of this first major New York revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, Hansberry’s follow-up to A Raisin in the Sun, leaned into that cultural nostalgia in casting. The breakthrough roles for the two lead actors, Oscar Isaac as Sidney Brustein and Rachel Brosnahan as his wife, Iris, were for playing characters in the bohemian Village arts scene of that era. It may be a solid marketing ploy (and both, particularly Isaac, give excellent performances), but don’t come to The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window looking to hang out with a struggling folk musician a la Isaac’s Llewyn Davis (in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis) or an aspiring comedian a la Brosnahan’s Midge Maisel (of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel). There is plenty of struggle, but nary an idyll, and barely an artist, to be found here. The play begins with the failure of a nightclub (not meant to be a nightclub, as Sidney is at pains to remind everyone, but a failure nonetheless) and proceeds via a small measure of success–which turns out to be more about cooptation and corruption than actual victory–to tragedy.
Sidney Brustein is an intellectual dilettante, convinced he’s destined for cultural preeminence, but mostly succeeding on charm–and his wife’s willingness to wait tables to pay the rent. Sidney opens Walden Pond, a “place to listen to good folk records,” which turns out to be a thing that nobody needs in the live-folk-club saturated Village. He ends up with nothing left but the glassware, then somehow acquires–no money seems to change hands, not that he has any anyway–a progressive weekly (a la the late lamented Village Voice) and tries to make something avant-garde of it. Iris is nominally an aspiring actress, but she too wants to be significant more than she knows how to do the work to get there. She comes home, takes off her waitress uniform, and does a dance warmup; she peruses Backstage religiously, but she hardly ever actually shows up for an audition.
Mostly, Sid wants the life that allows him to hang out having deep conversations with his similarly half-cocked-idealist pals, Alton (Julian De Niro) and Max (Raphael Nash Thompson), and maybe save the world once or twice. When the men get involved with a probably hopeless campaign to unseat a longtime neighborhood politician, it seems like Sidney’s found his niche, albeit possibly at the expense of his marriage.
Not, to be fair, that Iris and Sidney’s marriage was free of strife before this. Sidney alternates between cutting Iris down and lavishing affection on her for things like her hair and her Oklahoma background rather than anything she controls about her life. And you can almost hear Iris rolling her eyes at Sidney’s ambitions–even when she’s not overtly refusing to participate in them. But it’s easy to have a little more sympathy for her position when she seems to not only be the only one bringing home a paycheck, but also the one who does all the grocery shopping and cooking. Iris also needs to navigate between her two sisters, upper-middle-class conservative housewife Mavis (Miriam Silverman) and jet-setting high-class call girl Gloria (Gus Birney), who cause their own forms of drama in the Brustein household, Mavis with her racist/anti-Semitic/generally stodgy disapproval of the Brustein lifestyle and Gloria through a romantic entanglement with Alton.
Hansberry is relentlessly unsentimental, even to the point of viciousness; her characters do occasionally admit to ideals, but the play never gives those ideals a lot of enthusiasm or credence. A Brustein dinner party may include the Black communist Alton, the Jewish intellectual Sidney, the gay playwright David (the Brusteins’ upstairs neighbor), and the Greek/Irish/Cherokee actor Iris sitting around a makeshift table eating paella (the set, by the design collective dots, is an instant evocation of time and place, down to the shade of cream paint on the walls and the lighting fixtures). But “smug” bohemia, as iris’s sister calls it, is a paper thin layer over all the usual hatreds and hostilities: not just Sidney’s jabs at Iris’s psychotherapy and Alton’s passion for the downtrodden, but the racism and antiSemitism and homophobia and madonna/whore complexes that factor in to the way all the characters think and speak about one another. Their bonds sometimes seem as fragile as the next insult, whether that’s a racial slur, a moment of Iris’s sister Mavis’s condescension, or Sidney’s inability to resist a little dig at Iris. And while there’s plenty of nuance to be found in the performances, director Anne Kauffman leans in to the play’s underlying bracing chill; there’s passion but precious little kindness or affection. (She goes so far as to have the offstage actors sitting in chairs below the raised apartment set, watching a key scene late in the play, a coldly voyeuristic gesture that for my taste added nothing.)
There’s no heroism here, either, no sense of optimism about the changes that the counterculture had the potential to bring to American society. Rather, in Hansberry’s acid take, capitalism has already co-opted progressivism. The only question is whether the progressives know it or not—because the capitalists sure do.
The dividing line between the characters sometimes seems to be between hardened pragmatists and naive optimists. The only one coming close to succeeding on his own terms, artistically or materially, is David (Glenn Fitzgerald), the avant-garde playwright upstairs who’s just going to keep on writing what he wants to write, whether that makes him a success or a failure. Iris and her sisters all ground themselves in the pragmatist camp, willing to sell body or soul if that’s what it takes to get ahead: Gloria may be the literal prostitute, but the sisters are both selling out in different ways. Iris knows she isn’t all that talented, and when she’s offered the chance to do a TV commercial, she knows that selling home permanents for $100 a day is better than waiting tables for a lot less than that. Mavis marries a solid successful man; they have little in common and he has a mistress, but he gives her a life of safety and comfort where she doesn’t have to think too hard about her opinions.
But Sidney blithely saunters through the works, taking his failures in stride, because the world accepts his being an abrasive jackass. It’s part of his charm, and his charm has shielded him from some of the world’s cruelties and lies even as he thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room. (David may look down on him, but no one much cares what he thinks.) Isaac gives a revelatory performance–you see how Iris twists herself to be the woman he imagines, just to feel the beam of his charisma, but you also see every ounce of his meanness and his inability to resist using the cleverest line even if that’s the cruelest dig. And when the self-styled smartest guy in the room figures out he’s been the last to know, you see every beat of the crumbling of Sidney’s illusions on Isaac’s face.
Brosnahan holds her own against Isaac, but she and Kauffman have put Iris’s anger on a very slow burn; she gets mopey rather than mad for a little too long. The other standout performance for me was Miriam Silverman’s Mavis, as a woman who’s often mistaken (especially by Sidney) for blinkered rather than restrained; unlike Sidney, Mavis often chooses not to tell the world what she’s thinking. Her scene alone with Sidney, where she reveals many things he doesn’t know both about herself and about her sister Iris, is one of the standouts.
If the first act is a realistic portrait of the beatnik as a young man, with just a brush with Mavis to remind us of the square world, the second act breaks it all apart. Sid’s victory proves hollow; the Brusteins’ marriage is on the rocks; Gloria’s attempt to change her life is thwarted. Corruption and cynicism threaten to overtake them all. And from being the bustling albeit center of the action, Sid’s living room becomes a site for acerbic monologue and mounting despair and the awareness it’s all lies. The very structure of the storytelling starts to come apart, with individual atomized scenes rather than the seeming forward momentum of Act 1. It’s hard to watch, as all the things that Sid thinks he knows–about his wife, about politics, about social change–get dismantled one by one, and as spiritual death spirals down toward an actual death.
There’s a moment, close to the end, where morning light (John Torres did the subtly effective design) suddenly shines in to the Brustein living room, revealing all the blemishes and shabbiness in the apartment–the water stains on the walls and the threadbareness of the furniture. It’s a reminder of the way the play slowly strips away illusions, for the characters and for the audience; that bright, merciless light may fade again, but we’re never going to be able to go back to Bohemian nostalgia for a Village that never was, to valorizing Mrs. Maisel’s pluck and Llewyn Davis’s grit.