BWW Reviews: THE SIGN IN SIDNEY BRUSTEIN'S WINDOW
As Denzel Washington, Kenny Leon and Co. usher in the umpteenth renaissance of Lorraine Hansberry's A RAISIN IN THE SUN, across the country, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is mounting a 50th anniversary revival of the only other work the Hansberry- who died at 34 - lived to see produced.
That would be THE SIGN IN SIDNEY BRUSTEIN'S WINDOW, and if you have never seen nor heard of this work, you're in greater company than you might think. Angrily political and shot through with a social conscience though it most certainly is, SIDNEY BRUSTEIN'S WINDOW will not age gracefully and will never be a crowd-pleaser. All the same, the ensemble put together by Juliette Carrillo at OSF assembles the kindling and sets this baby on fire. This is so, in no small measure, thanks to the work of Ron Menzel as bohemian intellectual Sidney Brustein and especially of Sofia Jean Gomez as Brustein's wife, Iris.
The coupling and fracturing of Sidney and Iris Parodus Brustein rest at the center of Hansberry's investigation of activism, blindness and responsibility. In SIDNEY BRUSTEIN'S WINDOW, even more so than in RAISIN, the personal and the political are joined at the spine. The play opens with Menzel's Sidney having clandestinely bought a newspaper which he swears will remain above the political fray. Iris, a struggling actress knows otherwise.
Having spent six years serving paella to Sidney and his socialist friends around the coffee table of their walk-up Greenwich Village apartment (rendered with a shabby bohemian eye by Mikiko Suzuki-MacAdams), Iris knows that the hanging of a banner "Fight Bossism" will lead to a crusade. That crusade takes the form of Wally O'Hara (Danforth Comins), a mutual friend of Sidney's and fellow bohemian Alton Scales (Armando McClain), who is seeking a seat in local politics. Wally says he's out to fight corruption and clean up the city, and the long jaded Sidney wants to believe in him.
The Brusteins maintain a tight circle. Struggling gay playwright David Ragin (Benjamin Pelteson), lives upstairs and frequently drops in to bum a meal or join the cynicism-fest. Alton is in love with Iris's younger sister Gloria who he doesn't yet know - talk about idealism! - is a high class prostitute. Gloria and Iris's eldest sister Mavis (Erica Sullivan) is married to a wealthy businessman, which subjects her to the ridicule of Sidney.
Not that this makes Mavis unique. Sidney ridicules everyone, Iris most significantly. Theirs is a strained match: Sidney, an intellectual Jew, never at rest unless he can pick a battle, and Iris the part Greek, part Cherokee daughter of a mountain man who grew her hair long for the purpose of attracting a man. It worked. Sidney worships that burnt auburn mane and Brusteins foreplay - what remains of their sex life - involves Iris donning a peasant-y dress, dancing an Appalachian reel and, of course, taking down her hair.
When she's not serving pancakes at a diner, Iris dreams of being an actress, but she's too wracked with self-doubt to even make herself audition. Sidney's too honest remarks feed that anxiousness. "Jesus, Sidney, why don't you just punch me in the mouth next time," she says after one of his barbs.
It's 1964 and the struggle of Sidney and Iris's to find their place both in a turbulent America and with each other may be the beating heart of Hansberry's play, but how closely this heart is to other vital organs is subject to debate. SIDNEY BRUSTEIN'S WINDOW was limping through its 1964 Broadway premiere when Hansberry died, and the play was later revised by her former husband and producer Robert Nemiroff. OSF's production is a text assembled by director Carrillo and dramaturg Lue Morgan Douthit from a reported six published versions.
The result is a certain sense of messiness to an already unwieldy play. Some characters are superfluous, others spill their guts to people in whom, even when inebriated, they would never confide. Whether in rant or introspection mode - this production has plenty of both - Carrillo's cast is certainly game. Alton's impassioned justification over not wanting to accept "the white man's leavings" may come out of left field, but as delivered by the capable McClain, we're right there with him. Sullivan's Mavis and Vivia Font's Gloria have similar bravura turns. Serving little purpose other than to generate a laugh or two is Jack Willis playing an artist charged with reworking the masthead of Sidney's newspaper.
Hansberry was a massively talented writer and, in SIDNEY BRUSTEIN'S WINDOW, she may have been trying to work in a series of platforms as much as create viable characters. Whatever the version, this remains a preachy play, and Carrillo doesn't sidestep the underlining. She has left in a quite strange bacchanalian screed that finds David, Sidney and Gloria trashing Sidney's apartment and celebrating the freedom that is making them each so miserable.
When we're left alone with Menzel and Gomez, things are never uninteresting. The tall and gangly Menzel is forever pacing and twitching, a fighter always looking for an opponent, for something to hit. For much of the play, Sidney Brustein is an observer rather than an agitator, a restless guest in his own house. When the time comes for the man to actually commit - to an idea, to his wife, to principles - Menzel brings him compellingly into focus. He may not always be heroic, but he is at least recognizable.
Gomez's Iris is every bit his match. Representing the conscience of the play even more so than Sidney, Iris is neither crusader nor doormat. Straddling a line of fortitude and fragility, Gomez keeps us entirely in Iris's corner. Sidney would be foolish to lose her and, without Gomez's performance as its anchor, this play would be little more than a series of spouted agendas.
Photo Credit: Jenny Graham