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admin - Feb 3, 2023
Oscar Isaac and Rachel Brosnahan Bring a Rarely Seen Lorraine Hansberry Gem to BAM

In October of 1964, five years after A Raisin in the Sun made Lorraine Hansberry a leading figure in American letters, her second play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, opened at New York’s Longacre Theatre. Fame had come fast for Hansberry, who was not yet 29 when she became, with Raisin, the first Black female playwright to have a show produced on Broadway. “The telephone has become a little strange thing with a life of its own,” she told a New Yorker interviewer after Raisin’s premiere in 1959, reacting to the rush of invitations and engagements that followed. If Hansberry’s first work had dramatized some of the racial prejudices she felt growing up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1930s and ’40s, her second would tackle the political and social conflagrations of 1960s New York—where she’d moved as a 20-year-old college dropout the decade prior.

Centered on a gaggle of artists and writers in Greenwich Village, The Sign spoke directly to Hansberry’s Waverly Place milieu: a downtown cohort that included types who flirted with Communism; acolytes of “the abstractions flowing out of London or Paris”; and others who turned to “Zen, action painting, or even just Jack Kerouac,” as she described it in an essay published that fall. “The silhouette of the Western intellectual poised in hesitation before the flames of involvement was an accurate symbolism of some of my closest friends,” Hansberry wrote. It was the “climate and mood” of those types who “[constituted] the core” of The Sign.

In her 2018 biography, Looking for Lorraine, Imani Perry identified The Sign as Hansberry’s response to Another Country, her friend James Baldwin’s 1962 novel about “Village counterculture, queer sexuality, interracial intimacy.” Gathered around the play’s titular character—an entrepreneurial Jewish liberal who, besides being “a nervous, ulcerated, banjo-​making young man,” per Hansberry, was also a restless romantic and the recent owner-publisher-editor of a small weekly paper—were Iris, his fiery, aspiring-actress wife; their friend Alton, a white-passing Black Marxist who falls in love with Iris’s call girl sister Gloria; David, the gay playwright in the apartment upstairs; and Wally, a local politician who gains—and later betrays—Sidney’s trust and support. The play offered a slice of very specific life, following the group as they searched for meaning in the melee of the 1960s. (As Robert Nemiroff, a producer of *The Sign—*and Hansberry’s former husband—would put it in 1965, “The very day the play opened, Khrushchev fell from power in Russia, the Conservative Party fell in England, and the Chinese set off their atom bomb; where such events can occupy 24 hours, what power can a single man feel over the shaping of his destiny?”) It would be the final play that Hansberry saw produced; by the time it premiered, the playwright was 34 and already dying from pancreatic cancer, tended to primarily by Nemiroff and her older lover, a woman named Dorothy Secules.

The play’s initial critical reception was mixed. The shagginess of the script—which Hansberry had become too ill to properly revise—wasn’t lost on reviewers: “There are, in brief, many good things scattered through The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,” Howard Taubman wrote in The New York Times. “But the truth must be faced that Miss Hansberry’s play lacks concision and cohesion.” Others objected to its tone. But what most seemed to be asking, directly or indirectly, was how this play—about (mostly) white people butting heads with one another and themselves—could come from the same woman who authored A Raisin in the Sun, that perfect jewel of a story about a Black Chicago family dreaming of a better life.

A scrappy fundraising effort marshaled by Nemiroff, his producing partners, and well-wishers such as Shelley Winters, Anne Bancroft, Mel Brooks, and Baldwin kept The Sign on through the holidays, generating just enough buzz to make it a minor hit. But after Hansberry died, on the morning of January 12, 1965, the show went dark for good.

Now, after nearly 60 years, several rounds of revisions, and two successful recent stagings—at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2014 and the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 2016—The Sign’s first major New York production since its original run is due to open at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Thea­ter this February, led by Oscar Isaac as Sidney and Rachel Brosnahan as Iris.

In a drafty Bushwick warehouse on a bright November day, Isaac and Brosnahan are sitting on the floor, posed as the New York bohemians they are gearing up to play. Mere days after wrapping the fifth and final season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the Prime Video juggernaut that won her an Emmy and two Golden Globes, Brosnahan has traded the cocktail dresses and gloves of a nightclub comic act for a fitted green turtleneck and plaid capris, while Isaac—a fixture of the Star Wars and Marvel Cinematic universes to half of the viewing public, and a prestige-drama heartthrob to the rest—is in a sand-colored suit with an open shirt and no tie. They are shooting the poster for The Sign, and, though rehearsals won’t begin for another two months, they have an easy rapport, making each other laugh between setups.

For director Anne Kauffman, who helmed the show in Chicago, mounting a revival in New York has been a dream long deferred. “It’s been probably about 15 years,” she says. What appeals to her most about the work is its muchness: “It’s not necessarily finished, and I love that about it.” Compared to the tightly plotted action of A Raisin in the Sun, The Sign sprawls, weaving art, race, religion, idealism, and bitter disenchantment into its vast web. “I think she was trying something really big. She was hunting big game, as I like to say,” Kauffman observes of Hansberry. “It just feels alive, and it feels messy. We can’t make anything neat today—life’s just not neat anymore. So I feel like it’s ahead of its time in that way.”

Kauffman was teaching at NYU in the early 2000s when the play first started working on her. “I was mentoring one of the fourth-year directors, and she chose to do Sign. And I remember thinking, Are you sure?” Sitting in on her student’s rehearsals, however, she was struck by the play’s central couple, two sharp and passionate people who argue more than they talk. (The dynamic is playful and teasing until it’s not: “Why don’t you just hit me with your fist sometimes, Sid?” Iris asks her husband after one especially cruel remark.) In Sidney, whom Kauffman thinks of as “sort of the Jewish Hamlet,” she saw “a mix between Zero Mostel and Cary Grant. He has to be everything. He has to be a character actor and he has to be a leading man—I mean, he’s offstage for maybe seven minutes in the play.” Twenty-nine-year-old Iris, meanwhile, is “someone whose fierce wit and intelligence are only matched by how fearlessly she wields her heart,” per Brosnahan. “Her heart is completely outside her body.” (Or, as Kauffman puts it, “She’s like a child, but she’s coming into her own. She’s really smart. But she also talks out of her ass.”)

Years later, in 2017, Kauffman was meeting with Ben Stiller about doing The Sign in New York when he suggested Oscar Isaac—who is not Jewish, but did once play Hamlet at the Public Theater—for the lead role. “He’s without question one of the most exciting actors working right now,” Brosnahan says. “It feels like he’s constantly searching for ways to surprise himself and surprise his audiences at the same time.”

The play was a startling discovery for the 43-year-old actor, whose other upcoming projects include a crime thriller directed by Stiller and a retelling of the making of The Godfather—in which he plays Francis Ford Coppola—from Barry Levinson. “It feels like a lost Mozart piece or something,” Isaac says. Hansberry, writing in the 1960s, seemed to see right through our 21st-century social mores. “One of the things that I really loved, and I do feel speaks to now, is when Iris is saying, Oh, you’re being so Victorian about sex, and then Sidney says—I’m paraphrasing—Victorians didn’t have a problem with sex. They had a problem with its visibility. I found myself saying that a lot in conversation. Now, everybody’s all about saying the right thing and doing the right thing and making sure that you’ve got the right opinion. It doesn’t matter what the truth is, it’s about the visibility of it.”

If there’s a touch of Albee acid to Sidney and Iris’s sparring, in 32-year-old Brosnahan—who last appeared onstage six years ago, in an off-​Broadway production of Othello with Daniel Craig—Isaac found the perfect Martha to his George. “You’re just kind of thrust into these situations where you immediately have to be so intensely intimate,” he says of their first meeting, in 2019. “And the fact that she’s so open and free—it was just very, very easy.” “Rachel has a very, very free spirit,” Kauffman says. “She can play the conventional, but she is a wild hare. She is itching to break free of any enclosure. And I think she’s really hilarious.” She adds, “I feel like they both can do anything.”

Isaac and Brosnahan feel, yes, the pressures of bringing The Sign back to New York after so much time—“I walked into the Harvey Theater and I was like, Oh, my God, this place is huge,” Isaac says with a laugh. But they’re also enthralled by the chance to do so. “Hearing it out loud, it just felt so contemporary. The words leapt off the page, and also felt poignant and searing and funny and charming and hopeful,” says Brosnahan, who plans to take a well-earned break after the Maisel hustle—and hopefully get off-book—before rehearsals start. “I’m simultaneously excited and petrified, and obviously want to do justice to Lorraine’s beautiful script. But it being the first major New York revival of this play feels celebratory.”

Isaac adds, “There’s something about reading a play that when it really comes alive, it feels closer to what it feels like to play music live.” He considers himself and Brosnahan stewards of the work—or, to extend the simile, like “players in the symphony of this piece that hasn’t been played. That’s really the intent: I’d love to lend my part to let people hear this thing.” [Source]

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