Somewhere, late in the first act of The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (which opens February 22 at BAM’s Harvey Theater), a thought may creep into your brain: “So, what’s wrong with this play? It doesn’t act like a flop. It doesn’t behave like a flop.”
But it flopped. The original 1964 production at Broadway’s Longacre put in three months before calling it a day. Two days later, its author, Lorraine Hansberry, died of cancer at the age of 34.
She was, at the time, too ill to put in the corrections and revisions that her then-director Peter Kass needed, so the play arrived somewhat in shambles. Ever since, theatrical do-gooders have rushed forth with rewritten remedies and solutions because the roots of a good play are there.
When The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window returned to Broadway in 1972—revised—with Hal Linden, Zohra Lampert and a dash of music, The New York Times’ critic, Clive Barnes, still found it flawed but admitted “it has the good red blood of a Broadway success running through it.”
The best of these resuscitations was the one that Anne Kauffman directed in 2016 at the Goodman Theater in Hansberry’s hometown of Chicago. It received a glorious, revelatory write-up from the Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones, who called it “a masterpiece lost in plain sight.”
The first time around, most critics misread The Sign. Hansberry was the first African-American woman to write a Broadway play, and that work, A Raisin in the Sun, set such a high bar that precious few, if any, plays ever reached it. People then were shocked that she was writing about a liberal Jewish intellectual starting up an underground newspaper in Greenwich Village.
The general consensus was “Who does she think she is?” It was hard for the critical community to wrap their collective minds around the fact that a Hansberry play would explore the social change going on among New York’s Jewish liberal intellectuals. The general feeling was that she wasn’t allowed, in that period of time, to drive in any lane but her own—the race lane. The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window was her attempt to move past that.
“First and foremost, Hansberry was an activist,” says Kauffman. “She came from activist parents. Playwriting was a tool for her activism. She was not a playwright in and of itself. She was an activist her whole life. I don’t know if people knew all the different pots that she had her hands in. What you get in The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is the depth and breadth of her experience and knowledge. This play, and A Raisin in the Sun, have many layers and deal with a lot of different themes and different cultures. This play, from top to bottom, basically covers every undergraduate major you could pick—history, art history, literature, philosophy, politics, interpersonal relationships, identity. It’s the kitchen-sink play with it all—and the kitchen sink.”
Kauffman, who has had a Brooklyn Brustein on her books since the first cough of Covid, spent the interim improving on her improvements. She and Joi Gresham and their dramaturg, Jonathan Green, came up with four different versions of the original script in 2016. “We made cuts and additions and moved some stuff around,” she says. “Then, when we started working in Brooklyn, the actors got really interested in the 1965 version and the 1986 version. I sorta retracted some of the things I did. We added some new language, and we took away some of the other language. The script that we now have was all done during the rehearsal process.”
Casting the title role has always been a complicated chore. John Cassavetes, Walter Matthau and Dick Shawn were among the first considered for the original 1964 production. Instead, on a hunch, the director went with stand-up comic Mort Sahl, who, having nothing to stand up to, quickly proved a disaster.
Eight days before the opening night, Sidney was suddenly played by a reformed, former Dead End Kid, Gabriel Deli, who apologized to the audience for remaining on book. Rita Moreno, who played Sidney’s actress-waitress wife, Iris, steered him non-verbally where to go on stage.
Feminist concerns are more pronounced in the BAM edition where Iris fights a strong-willed husband for her identity and independence. She’s played by the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel herself, Rachel Brosnahan, and her Sidney is Oscar Isaac. “He actually came to me through Ben Stiller, who was my first choice,” admits Kauffman. “We had plans of doing it as we were going into Covid, and, by the time we were on the other side of that, he thought he was too old for it. ‘But,’ he said, ‘do you know Oscar Isaac?’ Basically, he set Oscar and me up on our first date.”
Jokingly, Kauffman refers to Sidney Brustein as the Jewish Hamlet: “He’s a clown. He has a very, very deep and mysterious soul. He has suicidal thoughts. He’s totally bright and can see things in a way other people don’t, but he is also very blinded in ways as well. Essentially, he’s a cross between Cary Grant and Zero Mostel, and you can see it. I think he has a bottomless depth. He needs to scrape the bottom of the depths of despair and has a ride to the heights of the highs.”
She cast the sad, romantic subplot intriguingly with the daughter of Reed Birney, Gus, and Robert De Niro’s son, Julian. “I’ve known about Gus for a while because I’ve worked with Reed a few times. Julian is a very unusual presence, and I think he has a really tough role, so I was looking for someone who brought a very unique vibe to the room, and he certainly does that.”
Kauffman believes BAM’s Harvey is a perfect fit for The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window and is dousing rumors of a Broadway transfer. “My goal was to get it into the atmosphere again, to let people know that it’s a play worth wrestling with. It’s an important play. Reviving it has been a labor of love for me and for everyone else involved in this production. I want people to come away from this play, thinking it’s a helluva play. I want them to see a new Lorraine Hansberry.”