Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Goodman Gives 'The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window' a Good, If Not Entirely Discernible, Reading -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window
a play by Lorraine Hansberry
directed by Anne Kauffman
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru June 5

In his considerably more glowing review of Goodman Theatre’s new production of Lorraine Hansberry’s oft-overlooked 1964 drama, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, the Chicago Tribune’s outstanding theater critic Chris Jones posits:
 “White, male critics in New York in 1964 simply could not get their heads around a black woman from Chicago showing such extraordinary range.”
Jones is supplying a reason for the relative obscurity of Hansberry’s play, which followed her monumental A Raisin in the Sun—the first Broadway play to be written by an African-American woman—but his comment also seems to correspond with Goodman Artistic Director Robert Falls saying in his printed introduction to the piece that "When Sidney Brustein finally opened on Broadway in October, 1964, its reception from both audiences and critics was decidedly mixed." (The show would run for just 3 months and close on June 12, 1965, the same day Lorraine Hansberry’s died from cancer at age 34.)

I certainly don’t doubt that the judgment of 1960s critics, and audiences, might have been influenced by racism, sexism, chauvinism, elitism and various other isms, and I always have high regard for Jones opinions—including about this play.

But based on my take, and that of at least a few other crowd members Sunday night, I don’t know that mixed reactions to this complex dramatic work—conceivably both in 1964 and now—should automatically be ascribed to petty thinking, snobbery or racial divides.

If anything, after seeing the 3-hour play, I surmised that audiences of yore well may have been more attuned to long, complex dramas with numerous thematic threads than today's simpletons like me who prefer 90-minute one acts with tight narratives—or perhaps 2 hours with an intermission.

This isn’t to say that the length of Sidney Brustein is inherently a flaw or drawback, but I had trouble getting my head around all that Hansberry has unfolding, not so much in terms of understanding it as much as ever excitedly embracing it.

Where A Raisin in the Sun focused on a family on Chicago’s South Side that faces both overt and covert racism when as they plan to relocate to a white neighborhood—based on real events involving Hansberry's own familyThe Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window is primarily an observation of white Greenwich Village liberals/activists.

Excepting elements of the on-stage apartment designed by Kevin Depinet (record albums, the lack of countertop appliances, etc.) and some iconic mid-‘60s references--Margaret Mead, Joan Baez, his is a play a modern viewer might well surmise had been written recently, by a skilled writer of almost any background.

As such, it could be seen as a more impressive work of fiction, observation and satire on Hansberry’s part than Raisin, and clearly the work of a gifted author whose race, gender, age and terminal illness inform the play but doesn’t define it

Yet as presented at the Goodman under the direction of Anne Kauffman, while I found it to be quite watchable—with the quality of Hansberry’s dialogue quite estimable; there are numerous fantastic lines—but never quite riveting.

As such, I was left with the sense that a shrewdly culled 2 hours of its 3 might have made for a really scintillating play, but that it was all a bit too much to ravenously digest.

Stanley Brustein (Chris Stack, here) is a Jewish Manhattanite who had run an unsuccessful local establishment called Walden Pond—“it isn’t a nightclub!” he repeatedly exists—and has now purchased a small progressive newspaper.

His gentile wife Iris (Diane Davis) is a waitress, with two sisters, haughty Mavis (Miriam Silverman) and, at least per societal mores in 1964 if not still, vocationally naughty Gloria (Kristen Magee).

Also factoring in are Alton (Travis A. Knight), an activist friend of Sidney who is proudly black but light-skinned enough to be presumed white, David (Grant James Varjas), a gay playwright who lives upstairs from the Brusteins, Max (Phillip Edward Van Lear), an African-American artist who gets little stage time but one of the show's most powerful lines--"You revolutionaries are all the same; you start out full of fire and end up full of shit."--and Wally O'Hara (Guy Van Swearingen), a local politician running against the established "machine" whose campaign sign is the one in Sidney Brustein's window.

As referenced, there are plenty of threads that have prominence, including Sidney's somewhat wavering ideals, Iris' frustration over a stalled acting career, ongoing bickering between the two and an unpopular romance between Alton and Gloria, the latter of whom doesn't appear at all in Act I but nearly dominates Act II.

These enable Hansberry to comment on marital discord, race relations, dreams that don't come true and other weighty matters, but in sum seem to diffuse the primary thread: the change Wally O'Hara's seemingly progressive campaign seems to represent and spectrum of Sidney's actions/emotions pertaining to it.

And given the current election year, I doubt I was the only one thinking about Bernie Sanders and his supporters—which include me—as the truth and consequences of O'Hara's bid unfold.

So there is much to admire about The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, including understanding how it fits into Lorraine Hansberry's unfortunately abbreviated oeuvre--though it's worth noting that her ex-husband Robert Nemiroff finished a few other of her plays after her death, including Les Blancs, of which there is currently an acclaimed London production--and appreciating its considerable contemporary resonance.

There are also, as noted above, a number of tremendously powerful and insightful lines of dialogue, including:

- "Keep your conscience to yourself. It's the only form of compassion left."
- "Since I was eighteen I belonged to every committee to save. to free, to abolish, preserve, reserve and conserve that ever was. And the result is that the mere thought of a "movement" to do anything chills my bones. "
- "In this world there are two kinds of loneliness: with a man and without one."

And the final line of the play, which I won't reveal, seems to represent Hansberry commenting on her own upcoming death, albeit with a sense of hope for the future.

So I wholeheartedly applaud the Goodman for introducing me to this play, and furthering my awareness of perhaps the greatest playwright ever to come out of Chicago.

However, my reaction to The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, simply as a piece of dramatic entertainment put before me in 2016, is, well, a good bit more mixed.

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