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‘The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window’ Review: Oscar Isaac on Broadway

The playwright Lorraine Hansberry was near death at age 34 when “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” premiered on Broadway, for a three-month run that ended with her passing in 1965. Set in the heady and libidinous bohemia of Greenwich Village, the play was considered too sprawling and radical a departure from “A Raisin in the Sun,” her landmark drama about a Black Chicago family striving from the margins. 

The sublime revival that opened on Broadway Thursday night, starring Oscar Isaac and Rachel Brosnahan at the theater recently named for James Earl Jones, is a mind-blowing restoration of an overlooked battleship. Crackling with ideological argument and loaded with withering observations about American progressivism, “Sidney Brustein” is thrilling and unwieldy in a way that too few plays are given sufficient berth to be on Broadway. Exquisitely directed by Anne Kauffman, its first production in over half a century demonstrates both the play’s stunning modernity and its viability as invigorating popular entertainment. 

Much of the friction in “Sidney Brustein” is generated from the collision of intellects, as a carousel of liberal types cycle in and out of the Village apartment that Iris (Brosnahan) dryly notes is cluttered with the residue of her husband’s failures (the graveyard-of-dreams set design is by dots). His latest toe-up venture was an absurdly conceived folk-music nightclub, which Sidney (Isaac) named after “On Walden Pond,” a nod to his passion for philosophical wonderment and irreconcilable contradictions. Now, he’s bought a local paper, which he vows to keep pure from politics before going whole hog on a candidate promising reform.  

At three hours that brim with discursive talk, “Sidney Brustein” is a daring and demanding star vehicle, not least because its central relationship maintains an enigmatic core even as it starts to disintegrate. Chemistry between the actors is palpable from the start: On the heels of her first entrance, Iris is stripped down to white stockings and underwear, practicing pliés at the kitchen counter, and Sidney is flat on his back at her feet. But it grows increasingly apparent that Sidney has never really seen or understood his own wife, a curious lapse for someone who insists on caring about everything to a fault. 

While Iris is in analysis, deepening her connection to who she is and what she wants, Sidney reserves his careful consideration for ideas and abstraction. When he’s not begging Iris to playact his fantasy version of her — “a mountain girl” with loose Rossetti curls — he’s knifing her rawest insecurities with startling cruelty. Of all Sidney’s tangled and reflexive impulses, most of which are intellectual, it’s his fire-and-ice treatment of Iris that’s hardest to reconcile.

Isaac does tireless and virtuosic work trying to synthesize the title character, and his charisma goes a long way toward wrenching Sidney into a center that can hold. If he doesn’t completely pull it off, there’s plenty to marvel at in the effort — like the quicksilver turns of a mind looping infinitely back on itself, and the tremors of an idealist doubled over with gut-scorching bile. 

Brosnahan has the more cohesive character, with clear desires and an interior life that at least responds to logic. Like Sidney, Iris wants to be “a somebody,” but in a more obvious though perhaps no less delusional way. Sidney condescends to his wife’s aspirations to be an actress, but Brosnahan invests them with lucid and affecting emotional stakes. Iris’ recollection of the hot-cheeked humiliation of going on auditions is a testament to the vulnerability inherent to sticking your neck out as an artist, as Hansberry did here.

The ensemble embodies a kaleidoscope of social viewpoints, with standout performances from Miriam Silverman, a Tony nominee for her wry elegance as Iris’s older sister and supposed uptown square, and Glenn Fitzgerald as the queer, absurdist playwright upstairs, a catalyst for banter that reflects Hansberry’s dynamic view of the form. The assurance and agility evident in much of the play’s earlier dialogue gradually turns to something looser and more associative, in second act monologues that assemble like a series of portraits, and a jazzy, drug-fueled happening that dissolves into a Kandinsky of chaotically splayed limbs awash in pink and green. (The hothouse lighting is by John Torres.) 

“Sidney Brustein” is more voracious than the polite naturalistic drama that was perhaps expected of Hansberry when her swan song was deemed to be too much. But it was also her clarion call, to demand more from people, their principles and the art that confronts them. Broadway would do well to heed her word.

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