The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window was playwright Lorraine Hansberry's final play — but for star Oscar Isaac the work has proved a personal renewal of his career and interest in acting.
When he first discussed the play, now on Broadway through July 2, with director Anne Kauffman, they were both in a place of creative defeat. "I remember we were talking about it pre-pandemic," he says. "We were both in a similar place where we were like, 'I don't know if we want to do this anymore. Like theater. Acting. I don't know. I'm just interested in other things.' And she's like, 'Yeah, this might be my last thing and if it doesn't happen, maybe I won't do it anymore.'"
Isaac, who has spent recent years heavily entrenched in franchises like Star Wars and Marvel, was feeling a distinct lack of interest in continuing to act professionally — until this play came his way.
For Isaac, the nobler investment he and Kauffman felt in the play was exactly what he was looking for — and it extended to the rest of the creative team. "There was already an energy there," he continues. "It was just a pure love for this thing and what it could be without any other trappings around its reception or what it would mean or anything else. It was just, 'There's something here and it speaks to us and maybe there's an opportunity to do it. Let's see.'"
Julieta Cervantes Oscar Isaac in 'The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window'
This production is only the third Broadway revival of Hansberry's 1964 show, the follow-up to her smash-hit A Raisin In the Sun and her second and final play (she died at the age of 34 while Sign was still in its initial run on Broadway). This revival started its life Off-Broadway earlier this spring at the Brooklyn Academy of Music before making an unexpected transfer to the Great White Way when a theater opened up after the sudden demise of the musical adaptation of Room. Now, the production is Tony-nominated for Best Revival of a Play, as well as for Best Featured Actress in a Play for Miriam Silverman's portrayal of Mavis Bryson.
The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window follows the titular Sidney (Isaac) and his wife Iris (Rachel Brosnahan), as they try to navigate making a life and honoring Sidney's bohemian ideals while living in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. Amidst their marital bickering, deeper tensions arise through encounters with local politics and Iris' upper middle class sister, Miriam (Silverman).
In advance of the Tony Awards on June 11, the core cast — Isaac, Brosnahan, and Silverman — sat down on the show's set with playwright Jeremy O. Harris, who was integral in organizing a producing team to transfer the show to Broadway. EW can exclusively share their wide-ranging conversation about Lorraine Hansberry's legacy, the play's thoughts about idealism, and why it's a crucial play for today's world.
Watch the conversation in the video above or read more below.
Julieta Cervantes Rachel Brosnahan and Oscar Isaac in 'The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window'
JEREMY O. HARRIS (producer): We're sitting on this stage and I feel like I'm actually in The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, and it feels crazy. You guys have all been doing this play for so long now, and theater is supposed to be this great place where we learn about the society we live in through these reflections. And I can't think of a better play, not just this season, but in like the last couple decades, that does that.
OSCAR ISAAC (Sidney Brustein): Sorry for the gross idea, but it's like popping a pimple, you know? The stuff has to come out. All that junk has to come out. Something that I remember even reading it, it feels like a release of a lot of stuff that people hold onto. One of the lines that has always resonated so strongly — in a broader context and how it's used in the play — is when he says about the Victorians and that they weren't against sex, they were against its visibility. It feels like there's so much about the time we're living in now that feels like we're living in a Victorian age, where it doesn't matter what you actually think, it just matters what you say publicly and how you behave publicly. But the the real stuff, what's really underneath there, we don't want to know that.
HARRIS: That is so true.
ISAAC: That's the thing. It feels quite Greek in that way — this play, where there's catharsis in seeing the vile and the ugliness come out on this stage. The amazing thing is that it's with people that are allies in the struggle, you know, left-wing, liberal, expansive, empathetic people. They're just as difficult and conflicted and full of contradiction and not easily digestible. The form of the play takes the same form as the characters, which is, it's not easily digestible. It's very purposefully that way. It is pastiche in some ways too. There's vaudeville, there's Borscht belt, there's Chekhov, there's Greek tragedy. There's all these different forms that conflict and have discordance in them. But it creates something that feels so unique and gives a bubbling, primordial feeling it.
Julieta Cervantes Rachel Brosnahan and Oscar Isaac in 'The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window'
HARRIS: I'm thinking a lot about the criticism this play has gotten over the many, many decades. One of the critiques that I really hate about the play or questions about the play that I really hate is that people are like, "There's no Black female character in this play." People misunderstand what a writer's job is, especially in this moment when identity is also a product. We treat things with very little nuance and complexity. In other forms, a self-portrait can look like a landscape, a self-portrait can look like a scene. You have to piece together all the reasons why that person's body is there. I see Lorraine in everyone in this play, but I see her the most in Iris — a non-Jewish woman married to a Jewish man in this complex marriage wherein she wants to break out and be an artist in different ways and also has a deep love for her partner. Do you feel like I'm overreaching and imagining that, or do you feel some connection to Lorraine as you work through Iris?
RACHEL BROSNAHAN (Iris): She feels so viscerally present in every single character in this play. And it feels like the reason why — even the characters who have the least amount of real estate in the play, like Max and Alton and Mavis — they speak so directly to the audience too. Because she actually is speaking through, and asking questions about this really complicated time in the world and in her own life through every single one of them. But I definitely hear her speaking through Iris based on what we know about her. We've had the great privilege of digging into some of her life and activism and other work.
But the moment that I hear every single night is the one where Iris is talking to Sydney in what we call the balcony scene. She says, "I'm 29 and I want to begin to know that when I die, more than 10 or a hundred people will know the difference." That to me is the moment that feels the most directly connected to Lorraine. Lorraine had already experienced great success as an artist at 29. At 29, Iris has yet to experience any of that success. But, in some ways, Iris also feels like the opposite of Lorraine.
There was some conversation as we were digging into Lorraine's life about her interest in the vulnerability of white women. Because she didn't feel herself, as a queer Black woman, that she could express that kind of vulnerability so openly. There's also something keenly observational and aspirational about the way that she writes Iris, which is that Iris is someone who's got her heart outside of every single piece of her body and is so deeply and openly and expressively moved by every person that and every idea that she comes into contact with in a way that maybe Lorraine wasn't able to be.
HARRIS: It's like that song in Michael R. Jackson's Pulitzer Prize winning, Tony-winning musical A Strange Loop, "The Inner White Girl." Iris might have been her inner white girl in some ways. The one who can throw a temper tantrum and be a mess because she couldn't.
BROSNAHAN: And be loved by so many different people and be forgiven and be given the space to pursue her dreams. Even if that came with its own challenges too.
Julieta Cervantes Miriam Silverman in 'The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window'
HARRIS: There's this great moment where Mavis comes in and tells Sidney, the great hipster that Sidney is, that, "There is no such thing as a square. Everyone is their own hipster." What do you think Mavis — and, by extension, Lorraine — are getting at with that line?
MIRIAM SILVERMAN (Mavis): Oh, I think so much of it is about how insular we can be in our perspective about other people, right? They think they're in this world that is unique and special. Yet in revealing this information about my life, my husband, Sidney is gobsmacked — when he finds out this news that it's not actually unique. That people from all walks of life and all different experiences, they all have their own full life when they fully express themselves. Because you're a rich, Upper East side, conservative doesn't mean you're square. You're having your own life, you're doing your own thing.
It's another reminder of, "Don't dismiss me because I look or speak or act a certain way." There are depths to plumb. There are secrets there. There's a whole life experience and lived experience and how easily we write people off or think just by the look of something or from limited knowledge that we know somebody. That's a bigger part about this play, which is that the second you get to know a character, they turn and do something that alienates you a little bit. [Hansberry] did that so brilliantly with everybody. They flip and turn and harm and betray and surprise us all throughout the play.
HARRIS: I love that also because it's like, uptown girls can get down too, you know? I like that idea. This play for me is an example of that line because James Baldwin or Lorraine Hansberry when they're taught in school, they're thought about as these antiquated, great intellectual figures. And then you read their journals and you're like, "Oh wait, they got wasted until 1 AM and danced to jazz. And he was doing whatever he was doing with Marlon Brando every night, and she was doing whatever she was doing with all these different ladies. And they don't teach us that. Part of the reason that this play is harder to present is that it doesn't show her as this like lady of black pain and nobility. She also got down with the get down, you know what I mean? She was hanging out with the freaks and the funky people too. She wrote an intersectional play to be like a f--- you to her peers. She also threw in her diss track against Edward Albee.
ISAAC: But that diss track is so connected to this same thing, which is a big pulse of continue to engage. Any time someone has an excuse to disengage that person's called out. It feels like that's what the real dig is, which is don't find an excuse to wash your hands or dismiss people or dismiss the situation.
HARRIS: Your plays are not necessarily better because they're different. We're doing different things to get to the same point. And that is part of being a human being. That's part of being an artist. She says that so beautifully and so clearly.
BROSNAHAN: One of the big criticisms of this play at the time was this idea of staying in a lane that she understood. But to your earlier point, just to name it, this was Lorraine's community too. She knew every single one of these people so intimately. The idea that she couldn't talk about this world with as sharp an eye as she did in A Raisin in the Sun is ludicrous.
HARRIS: One of the things that kept this play alive on Broadway the first time was the sheer force of will of the audience. The audience said, "We want this play here. We don't care what the critics have to say. We want to see this play happen." Are you guys feeling that? What do you think about the feeling of this play? What do you think it is about this play that inspires their spirit in an audience? Cause I feel like I've seen it here.
SILVERMAN: It's with young people too. I feel like we meet all these people at the stage door who [are making] repeat visits. They saw it at BAM; they come back to Broadway twice, four, five times. It's so many people's first Broadway show. Also the number of my NYU students and the playwrights that I teach and the actors coming and being blown away by how modern this is and how sort of experimental this play was, given what they know of Lorraine Hansberry's playwriting.
It's funny because what somebody calls messy and unfinished, you might also say she was just experimenting with form and she was pushing the limits and reinventing this idea. So to this day, when I hear somebody talk about, saying, "It was unfinished. It's messy." Okay. That's one way to say it. But that's also a deeply patriarchal way of thinking about a work of art and how it needs to conform to some linear, Aristotelian [form] that has to be a certain way to be a good play. These students, who are writing in 2023, coming and seeing this play, having their minds blown that Lorraine wrote this in '64. That's so incredible. That's also been part of the buzz and the excitement about engaging with this.
ISAAC: It's a reminder of what a once in a generation voice she had. She was such an original, nonconformist, anti-establishment provocateur. And had she lived, what could've been.
BROSNAHAN: And it's worth acknowledging in terms of the legacy of this particular show, the whiplash transfer from BAM to Broadway — in those small part thanks to you, Jeremy — that feels in keeping with the nonconformist punk rock spirit of this show that was kept alive by a group of passionate artists and audience members. That was possible because of another group of passionate rad producers who saw something in this play, saw an opportunity, made it happen in record time, and have continued to grow the passion of our community and of these audiences. It's been a profoundly moving experience to live multiple lives with this play.
Julieta Cervantes Rachel Brosnahan in 'The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window'
HARRIS: Thank you for your acknowledgement of the producers on the show because we only met the passion of you all. That's what gave us the jet fuel to do this. But the real visionary that I must thank in this moment is Annie Kauffman. Because Annie has stood by this play since she was 19 years old. What has it been like to work with her on this play, to have that many, many years of energy inside of this text come to the direction of this play?
ISAAC: It was just like a pure love for this thing and what it could be without any other trappings around its reception or what it would mean or anything else. It was just, "There's something here and it speaks to us and maybe there's an opportunity to do it. Let's see." To follow that almost effortless engagement in the material with everybody — and how loose and easy and filled with joy and unpretentious that allowed everyone to be and for everyone to bring out all their ugly.
HARRIS: This is really crazy because this play has been on Broadway twice. Both times it's been on Broadway, there's been one character from the play that has been [Tony] nominated each time, and it's the character you play, Miriam. And you have not let us down.
SILVERMAN: Thank God. I only learned that like the week before the nominations. I learned that both Frances Sternhagen and Alice Ghostley had been nominated. So thank goodness I didn't break the streak.
HARRIS: What is it like stepping in those shoes and walking in these heels and her coats and her wigs?
SILVERMAN: Amazing. It's one of the most gorgeously crafted characters I could ever hope to play. You just don't get an opportunity that often to play somebody that the audience clocks immediately and thinks they know, thinks they can laugh at her and dismiss her, and then comes in later in the play and upends everything. To get to be funny and then have moments of gravitas and surprise everyone on stage, it's rare. It's a credit to [Hansberry's] genius.
HARRIS: When an actor gets to meet writing like that, it's always so fun. What's also really fun about this cast is that you all are the first cast to ever lead this play to the top tier nomination. It's never been nominated for Best Revival and never been nominated for Best Play until this season. I know I get to take some credit for that, but I think all the credit belongs to you all and what you guys do. What are you guys feeling as we go into this moment with that nomination?
BROSNAHAN: It's felt really organic, this whole process. That actually is just the cherry on this sundae. When we started this, the Tonys weren't even on the table because we were doing a limited run at BAM. Every single person here was in it for the passion of this work. To have this work, for the first time, be recognized for Lorraine and for Lorraine's legacy, and for Annie who has been championing this show for such a long time, it's more special than it already was. But it feels like an organic part of the journey of this show.
SILVERMAN: And it's your work. Guys, You don't know this, but after we did that reading back in whenever 2020, 2021 — that was like a year before we went into rehearsal. We left and I talked to Annie. These two roles are impossibly hard roles. They're two of the hardest leading roles that exist in theater. Annie and I have been saying for years, since Chicago [in 2016], about how tough they are. I left, we got on the phone and we were just like, "Oh my God, oh my God." I've never told you guys this, but she was like, "I found them." She basically said, "I don't want to do this without these actors." She did. And so we just talked on the phone and cried a little bit because we were so happy. It's Best Revival because of that and this amazing casting and their work.