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The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window

The Goodman Theatre produces Lorraine Hansberry's rarely performed play.

Miriam Silverman (Mavis) and Chris Stack (Sidney Brustein) in The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, directed by Anne Kauffman, at Goodman Theatre.
(© Liz Lauren)

The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window premiered on Broadway in 1964, and ran for only three months. It closed around the same time that its playwright, Chicago-born Lorraine Hansberry, died of pancreatic cancer at age 34. Since then, it has been generally neglected, overshadowed by Hansberry's classic A Raisin in the Sun. The new Goodman production is part of the theater's monthlong celebration on Hansberry's work.

For a play about bohemian intellectuals in the 1960s, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window is surprisingly contemporary. Its language and politics are dated, of course, but there is self-aware navel-gazing throughout that would seem more at home on HBO's Girls. "In order to do things you have to do things," says Sidney (Chris Stack) before spending the rest of the play arguing about how to think about why we do things, if we do them at all.

Few of the characters are particularly likable. The mercurial Sidney pontificates and picks fights, alienating his friends as much as he inspires them. His favorite sparring partner is his wife, Iris (Diane Davis), a struggling actress who is slowly but surely losing her patience for both show business and Sidney. Their bickering, once playful, has turned into something mean and petty, and they go for the jugular more and more. Their apartment is a gathering spot for the dreamers and bohemians who make up their Greenwich Village social circle – activists, artists, playwrights, and Wally O'Hara (Guy Van Swearingen), a would-be reform politician who vows to take down corruption. O'Hara's campaign galvanizes the neighborhood and draws out Sidney's optimistic side, just in time for reality to crush it down again.

Chris Stack plays Sidney with enough charisma and enthusiasm so that we understand why his friends and wife stay in his orbit even when he is a boor. As Iris, Davis spends much of Act 1 stuck in a pattern of door-slamming and eye-rolling, but she shows her dramatic chops as Iris' depth is revealed in the second act. Iris and Sidney's fragile marriage is the center of the play, and Burstein and Davis have the chemistry to keep it moving. Miriam Silverman is a delight as Iris' older sister, Mavis, a square woman with strong opinions, who meddles in her sisters' lives in order to fill her own. Kristen Magee is touching as Iris' world-weary younger sister, Gloria. Gloria is being courted by Sidney's old friend Alton (Travis A. Knight), who is an idealistic political firebrand. Knight is agreeable, but a meandering accent distracts from his performance.

Under the direction of Anne Kauffman, Hansberry's play is never treated as a period piece, keeping the focus instead on the universality of the relationships. Alison Siple's costume design is period-appropriate without being fussy, and while Kevin Depinet's set has an undeniably mid-century aesthetic, the Burstein's overstuffed apartment wouldn't look too out of place today.

Parts of Hansberry's script comes off as contrived, particularly in respect to the ease with which characters spill secrets for one another despite all logic. Running two hours and 45 minutes, the play is as long-winded as the intellectual blowhards that fill up the titular apartment. But in its best moments, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window is powerful, personal, and wonderfully relevant.