I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I love bohemian culture. Heck, it’s fair to say that I romanticize it a bit too much. But it’s important to point out that I do, in fact, revel in the unseemly and less-than-fanciful aspects of the culture as well. So you see, I love bohemia ... warts and all.
So when someone examines the culture's past or present, shining a light on all the messy bits that question, reaffirm, and question again why bohemia matters, I can’t help but take notice and go in for a closer look. And that’s exactly what happened last month, when I ventured out to the James Earl Jones Theatre to see the revival of Lorraine Hansberry's long-gone-but-not-forgotten play, The Sign In Sidney Brustein’s Window.
Coming off of a successful Off-Broadway run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, director extraordinaire Anne Kauffman brought the much-applauded revival to Broadway in April with a stellar cast just perfect for underscoring its brilliance.
For many in the audience like myself, this sophomore theatrical turn from one of the most talented literary voices taken from us far too soon was a first. Like most, I knew Hansberry’s work only through A Raisin In The Sun and the unique autobiography To Be Young, Gifted and Black.
But thanks to Kauffman, I got to know the playwright just a little bit more thanks to this thought-provoking opus that presents a fascinating character study into mid-century bohemia against a backdrop of the ever-shifting cauldron of change that was 1960s New York City.
Diving into The Sign In Sidney Brustein’s Window, the audience gets a peek into the lives of your average New York idealists. Some are trying to make the world a better place; some are trying to make a better life; and others are just trying to survive – and all while simultaneously navigating their own flaws, fears and fantasies.
And of course, some of those idealists navigate better than others. However, it’s up to the audience to decide if one of the better navigators is Sidney (played expertly by the one and only Oscar Isaac) pretending to have control in a world filled with chaos as he works to get his alternative newspaper off the ground after shuttering his nightclub/coffeehouse/lounge. Or is it Iris, Sidney’s wife (played by the generous and genial Rachel Brosnahan), who reluctantly balances a day job at a diner with a dream deferred in acting and cosmetic sales. She tolerates Sidney’s mild criticisms until they’re no longer mild and her unconditional love is no longer enough to keep their marriage together.
We meet the couple in the beginning along with their close friend, Alton, a young African American man eager to support his friends, but not eager to see them sit on the sidelines of much-needed change. It is Alton who first introduces Sidney to the idea of using his newspaper to support the candidacy of their friend and local wannabe-changemaker, Wally. At first, Sidney is skeptical of Wally’s chances, and even more skeptical of his ability to offer any support that will make a difference.
But with steady pressure from Alton (played beautifully by Julian De Niro), the team is off to help get their friend elected, while trying to build a media following, pay the bills, manage family drama, skirt relationship drama, and live wild and free. Because all bohemians live wild and free after all … if they’re lucky.
What Hansberry cleverly sculpts here is an incredibly precise picture of modern-day iconoclasts who believe they have it all figured out, and yet can’t seem to decipher how to break free from the system that binds them.
Max, an epitome of the esoteric and temperamental artiste, can’t figure out why Sidney and Alton can’t appreciate his creative vision when applied to the pedestrian concepts of journalism. Alton can’t figure out why his girlfriend – Iris’s younger sister, Gloria – is slow to respond to his marriage proposal. And David, the sardonic out-and-proud playwright and upstairs neighbor, can’t figure out why anyone bothers to seek out love and truth when they know they’re only going to be disappointed in the end.
This cavalcade of archetypes promises to take the audience on a rollercoaster of emotion that they will never forget. You’ll laugh at the Brusteins’ playful antics and skillful wordplay, only to be shocked by the harsh marital spats that rear their ugly head moments later. You’ll sit dumbfounded at the middle class quips lobbed at and by Iris’ older, more judgmental sister Mavis, only to be saddened by the dispiriting tale of quiet struggle she carries with her every day in the face of acceptability. And you’ll marvel at the winsome abandon three outcasts embrace as they enjoy a communal acid trip after pledging to turn their lives around, only to be stunned into silence when one falls into a chasm of despair when the traits of her old life come knocking at her door.
At first glance, The Sign In Sidney Brustein’s Window can appear to be an indictment of bohemian culture, rudely lampooning the idealists of a generation who naively believe that change is gonna come, if only they just try hard enough. The skeptical façades we behold at the top of the play give way to the brief and sincere moments of hope we are happy to embrace an hour later. But Hansberry knows life in bohemia is not romantic, nor should it be romanticized. And within the following hour, we face the all-too-familiar devastation of what happens when hope can no longer feed us.
Every person is changed by their circumstances, but more importantly, every person is changed by their relationships. Whether through confession, argument, or personal request, our ardent idealists fumble and sputter about their lives hoping to fix whatever they believe to be broken. And the results are heartbreaking as much as they are relatable.
The Sign In Sidney Brustein’s Window is equal parts comedy and tragedy, but every part is a testimony to the truth that each generation battles when confronted by the personal and political. It slaps us in the face with the reality that some things are simply bigger than you, whether it be social mores, family legacies, or big city politics. And trying to live by our ideals often comes at a price much higher than we’re willing to admit until it’s too late.
When the play originally opened in October 1964, it received mixed reviews due to Hansberry’s unapologetic look at the universal thread that connects those who seek to disrupt the status quo. That look made many critics uncomfortable, wanting the playwright to limit herself to stories about the African American experience that made millions feel more at ease with the distance between themselves and the subject matter.
But Hansberry was an artist first, and a conduit for voyeurism second, so placing her lens in the tiny flat of Sidney and Iris Brustein expanded not only her message of intersectionality within the circles of bohemia, but also her commentary on humanity at large. It’s no wonder that despite a poor critics’ reception, the play’s original run struck a chord with countless artists, directors, producers, artists, actors, and other creative professionals. They loved the play and fought to keep it from closing prematurely due to lukewarm critical reviews.
According to the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust, celebrities from across the industry offered their time and energy to sing the play’s praises. Everyone from James Baldwin to Shelley Winters to Ossie Davis to Viveca Lindfors lauded the production with high praise, and the inimitable Mel Brooks and equally magnificent Anne Bancroft produced full-page ads in local papers to help keep the play running at the Longacre Theatre for as long as possible.
And if you’re lucky enough to enjoy this revival before the show closes on July 2nd, your Playbill will be paired with a small insert sharing one of the enthusiastic broadsides that Bancroft and Brooks wrote in support of Hansberry’s play for The New York TImes.
Almost 60 years after the original run, The Sign In Sidney Brustein’s Window, resonates as much as it ever has. Whether it is because the struggle is unchanged, the political climate is unchanged, or our humanity is unchanged, we may never know. But what we do know is that Hansberry’s radiant words, characters, and message will forever hold a place in the hearts and minds … warts and all.