Oscar Isaac and Rachel Brosnahan get lost in the ’60s of ‘Sidney Brustein’
The Daily Beast
February 27, 2023
The star power of Oscar Isaac and Rachel Brosnahan brings life—but not sense—to “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.” Plus, the elegant power of Sarah Ruhl’s “Letters From Max.”
The sign in Sidney Brustein’s window, in Lorraine Hansberry’s play of the same name, is one which supports a liberal New York politician, Wally O’Hara, who ultimately turns out to be no good. And what the sign stands for—ideals defiled and made redundant—are at the heart of Lorraine Hansberry’s second Broadway play, which premiered in 1964. It followed her smash success—and the play she remains best-known for—A Raisin in the Sun, which the Public Theater mounted a near-perfect revival of last year.
But whereas what the latter said about race remains piercing and universal today, Sidney Brustein, presently revived in an all-star production at BAM (to March 24), feels very much of its time, and dustily lost in it too.
Hansberry died far too young at 34, just months after Sidney Brustein premiered on Broadway. It features a majority-white character set and cast, a bunch of allegedly cool cats in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s; and its concern is to show the depth and also frail pieties and concerted whining of the white ’60s liberal. It is both merciful and merciless in this respect, and it is beautifully written as a piece of text. But it is a grating snooze of a play; it ponders, meanders, stalls, and ultimately gets stuck in its own plot-free thicket of words. Its characters circle each other, and its arguments do the same. Dramatically, it is rambling and unsatisfying.
Still, at least this production has a starry cast—Oscar Isaac, as Sidney, and Rachel Brosnahan as his wife Iris—and one standout performance, Miriam Silverman as Mavis, Iris’ judgey, supposedly anti-Semitic sister, who injects significant pep into the grind of the evening.
The design doesn’t help; indeed it adds to the stilted atmosphere; the Brusteins’ apartment is mounted as a mobile home might be, beached in the middle of the stage space, with a good deal of unused space at the front of the stage, presumably meant to signify the building courtyard as stated in Hansberry’s script. However, this dead space remains unused until the last minutes of the play, and even then it’s an anemic, dull use of the space. The characters feel suspended, and the accentuation of the artifice of a stage set does the production no favors. We are and feel very detached from what is happening in front of us.
The production begins with a good joke: Sidney himself is emerging from a failed business venture where people could listen to “good folk records.” “It wasn’t supposed to be a nightclub,” he is forced to say over and over again to the very funny derision of Iris and others, like a young Black compadre, Alton (Julian de Niro). “Who wants a piece of a non-profit nightclub?” Iris wonders.
Isaac and Brosnahan capture the couple’s slinky sexiness and smarts; whatever problems they have, they are extremely attractive and hot for each other while having it. They have chemistry, and enliven the play with physical crackle, whether dancing, stretching, or falling on to couches. But Sidney’s right-on persona barely conceals more traditional sexist parts of Sidney’s behavior.
He objectifies his wife as his “mountain girl,” derides her acting skills, and diminishes Iris with pointedly vicious zingers, which he doesn’t seem to realize cause the damage they do. “Why don’t you just hit me with your fists sometimes?” she asks him. She parries well herself; when he questions the quality of the therapy she’s been having, she says, “I just called you a sadistic, self-satisfying son of a bitch to your face—instead of just thinking it.” Iris felt she was “the luckiest girl in the world” when she met Sidney, but now that isn’t enough. She will “shrivel up and die” if she has to sit through more of the group’s political noodling. “I am 29 and I want to begin to know that when I die more than ten or a hundred people will know the difference.”
Post the failed not-nightclub, Sidney’s new mission is to launch an artsy newspaper that will deliberately exclude politics, claiming he has “lost the pretensions of the campus revolutionary.” Yet everything he says and does in the play shows that he has not. He derides Iris for her attitude of “live and let live,” of not-caring their upstairs neighbor David (Glenn Fitzgerald) is gay. He wants her to care, he wants everyone to care, yet professes not to be political or fight for political change with his new publication.
His blind spots and ignorance—around his imploding relationship with Iris, his liberal politics, the Black man he works with, and the gay man upstairs—are plentiful. Alton tells Iris that she talks about not caring if he us “blue, green, purple, or polka dot,” but that she should think about what that means, as they are “not an option” to him as a Black person in a racist society.
Silverman as Mavis, who may be perceived as the interloper for her conservatism, is the most welcome presence on stage. Her line, “The things you people think you have to talk about!” was greeted with a ripple of appreciation by the audience this critic sat in. “I am standing here, and I am thinking: How smug it is in bohemia,” she says—and she’s spot-on.
Mavis returns later for a deeper conversation with Sid, and again it is Silverman who seems to have the most clarified grip on her character. “You know, sometimes I think you kids down here believe your own notions of what the rest of the human race is like. There are no squares, Sidney. Believe me when I tell you, everybody is his own hipster.” Again, amen to that. Silverman provides a wonderful bucket of cold water.
The play becomes a lesson after lesson for Sidney, even if he does not learn much because he thinks he has nothing to learn (and he does, so much). Alton makes it clear to him, as a Black man, how he is “spawned from commodities—and their purchasers.” He tells him the powerful story of his father, a railroad porter’s, awakening to the racism he has worked all around his adult life, wiping up “spit and semen, carried drinks and white men’s secrets for thirty years.”
Mavis’ judgment, bracing as they are, also provoke in David the thought that he “really must look into what makes the majority so oppressively defensive,” which echoes down the years now in our own society-wide backlash—“the war on woke”—against progress and demands for equality for various marginalized communities.
However, there is no natural alignment between the marginalized in Sidney Brustein. Alton calls David “fag face,” and is viciously homophobic; David himself is written at a bunch of strange angles—arch, fun, yet opaque. A grand, climactic confrontation Sid has with politico Wally is a damp squib, as the play doesn’t make a convincing case he’s done anything that bad, apart from focus on community issues as opposed to bigger projects of social change.
An extremely weird scene finds Sidney with Iris’ other sister Gloria (Gus Birney), a prostitute, who Alton rejects once he finds out what she does for a living, kvetching, rambling, and boozing, and pill-popping, with an ultimately tragic result. It is a wacky scene, interminable really, which drags the whole play off its already fractured tracks, until a qualified, positive ending which literally brings the breaking dawn over Sid and Iris’ faces. This also feels weird, illogical, unearned, and improbable and untrue to the characters. It made this critic think how little we knew the play’s title character. Did Sid care too much, care too little, and what did he care about? Honestly, the play takes as many gambits on these questions as you may care to.
“Mavis, the world is about to crack right down the middle. We’ve gotta change—or fall in the crack,” Sidney says to his judgmental sister-in-law. But how would running a non-political arty newspaper do to substantially counter any of that? And why does Sid talk about politics way more thaan art—given that he initially professes to embrace the latter and shun the former, and then spend hours lecturing people about politics and social change. Perhaps the play is a satire about white liberal intent and confusion, as embodied by Sidney and the other characters on stage. Whatever, time has outpaced it, and so just like Sidney, Iris, and the others, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window sadly ends up feeling stuck.
Letters From Max
Sarah Ruhl’s striking and beautifully written play, subtitled “a ritual,” is a two-hander, with a notable third hand (Signature Theatre, to March 19). An adaptation of Ruhl and Max Ritvo’s 2018 epistolary book, Letters from Max: A Poet, a Teacher, and a Friendship, the constant is Jessica Hecht as Ruhl herself who tells the story of her student Ritvo, their friendship, and his eventual death after a debilitating terminal illness.
Ritvo is played, at different performances, by Zane Pais and Ben Edelman. If you see Pais play the role, as this critic did, Edelman plays a piano accompaniment to some scenes. If you see Edelman, Pais plays the guitar. Directed by Kate Whoriskey—with excellent design by Marsha Ginsberg, lighting by Amith Chandrashaker, and projections by S Katy Tucker—the performance is structured around the correspondence Ruhl shared with Ritvo from the time he was her student right up to his death. Obviously, it helps that both are very intelligent, literate people, just at home with having deep conversations about literature and mortality as they are cursing those who make noise in a train’s quiet car.
The two characters speak to each other, and to us. Night falls, hospital beds are occupied, holidays taken, essays marked, classes missed, and parties and weddings celebrated. The teacher becomes close to her student, and he idolizes her—yet both are each other’s most respectful, watchful, and honest critics and friends too. It feels a true Platonic ideal of friendship. They make each other think and laugh; they ponder big questions, including around his mortality, and then are also just silly. On the back of the stage, one of the most whip-smart text exchanges will leave you feeling inadequate if you usually are just swapping dumb jokes and YouTube links.
Both Hecht and Pais balance sharpness and whimsy, and somehow avoid the twinned traps of mawkishness and misery porn that can pepper these sorts of stories. Letters From Max is a joy—an enveloping and jolting piece of both theater and writing.