Monday, March 24, 2014

Showboating: The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window

Ron Menzel and Sofia Jean Gomez in The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (Photo by Jenny Graham)

The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, receiving a rare revival at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, was the last play written by Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun); she died, at thirty-five, during its Broadway run in 1964. Set among Greenwich Village bohemians, it’s a bald, generalized and often preposterous attack on corruption and compromise. Sidney, the hero (played by Ron Menzel), a hard-drinking dilettante in search of a venue for his undefined artistic and communal aspirations, buys a local newspaper (his last property, a jazz and folk club, went belly-up) and opts to put its clout behind a politician, Wally O’Hara (Danforth Comins). But by the time O’Hara wins the election, the political machine he opposed has bought him. Sidney’s wife Iris (Sofia Jean Gomez), a would-be actress, lands a gig in a TV commercial for a hair product that doesn’t work. When their playwright neighbor, David Ragin (Benjamin Pelteson), opens his first show to enthusiastic notices, Sidney, panicked because Iris has left him, begs David to write a role for her in his next play; he even tries to bribe him with the promise of a rave review in his paper. Their friend Alton Scales (Armando McClain) wants to marry Iris’s sister Gloria (Vivia Font), until he discovers that she’s a high-class hooker.

The play reads like a list of compromises of widely divergent kinds that are all meant to underscore the same point (compromise sucks us all under). When Sidney tries to persuade Alton not to give up on Gloria, Alton, a light-skinned black man, offers a tirade about African Americans taking the white man’s leavings that equates Gloria with the small treats his mother, a domestic, brought home from her white employers and even with the slave rape that initiated his mixed-race genealogy. Try getting your head around that one. The script doesn’t have much narrative logic – look at the Alton-Gloria romance, for starters – and substitutes a series of scenarios for a dramatic arc and character consistency. At the outset Alton has to talk Brustein into politicizing his new paper but by scene two Brustein is hanging the titular sign in his window proclaiming O’Hara’s platform. He becomes such a pure-hearted devotee that he treats Iris’s commercial job as if it were only a step or two above his sister-in-law’s hooking – a point of view Hansberry evidently endorses. Yet he doesn’t think twice before asking David to write a part for his (apparently talentless) wife. And when O’Hara threatens to close down Sidney’s paper (he doesn’t say just how he’ll carry out this plan – presumably the all-powerful machine that got him into office can just wave its hand and the publication will sink instantly into bankruptcy) and Sidney vows to fight him tooth and nail, he wins his wife back, as if she’d left him in the first place because he embodied the spirit of compromise. (Hansberry seems to have lifted this idea from Clifford Odets, specifically from The Big Knife, but though the hero’s wife in that play is a rather tiresome symbol, at least she stands for the same thing in act three that she stood for in act one.)

Sofia Jean Gomez and Armando McClain (Photo: Jenny Graham)
The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is a mess, and probably a hopeless one, but it took me several scenes to work out how much of the problem with what I saw in Ashland was Juliette Carrillo’s production. Style, for instance: the play is realist but suddenly, when it briefly shifts locales to a woodsy retreat where the Brusteins spend a day, Carrillo underscores the change with a sort-of Appalachian dance. (The densely dressed set is an admirable piece of work by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams, who effects the shift by cross-cutting projections on the upstage cyclorama. MacAdams is a member of the new generation of designers who are finally integrating projections successfully with set pieces.) I assume the anti-realist intrusion was an invention of Carrillo, who is also listed as choreographer. But in the middle of act two Sidney, Gloria and David engage in a drunken recitation – Carrillo stages it, ridiculously, as a not-quite-orgy – that sent me to the published script, where it’s similarly indecipherable.

It’s clear, however, that whatever Hansberry had in mind for that particular scene, in the rest of the play she’s working out of a realist impulse, just as she did in A Raisin in the Sun; even the pseudo-prose-poetry just before the final curtain is of the “the strong must learn to be lonely” variety – Ibsen via Arthur Miller. (Come to think of it, that’s pretty much the way A Raisin in the Sun, that stupefyingly dull paean to the ascent of the black urban working class into the bourgeoisie, ends.) Yet the acting, almost across the board, is oddly presentational, embroidered with jarring physical and vocal additions that are like routines. There are so many of them in the opening scenes between the Brusteins that I wanted to inject them both with Valium – especially Gomez, whose exhibitionism is embarrassing. It wasn’t until Font made her second-act entrance as Gloria and started bopping around the set, moving through a series of overstated emotions like a human strobe light, and I jotted down in my notes, “They all seem to have been infected by the same virus,” that it hit me: what I was watching was an experiment in Viewpoints, Anne Bogart’s gilding-the-lily approach to working with actors, which grafts all kinds of extraneous movement and vocal ideas onto a text and renders it entirely artificial. It’s a virus, all right, and only Jack Willis (in a cameo as a hippie abstract expressionist painter named Max) and Erica Sullivan (as Iris’s other sister, Mavis) seem to have been vaccinated against it. One of my friends observed that Sullivan came on in act one as if she were acting in the same style as the other actors but appeared to be fighting against it, and by act two she had thrown it off. Smart of her – especially since Mavis is the only character in the play who becomes more interesting as the play goes on. At first Hansberry leads us to think that Mavis is superficial, an arriviste encased in prejudices. But in the second act she gives the character a speech to Sidney that reveals the difficulties she’s had to face in her own complacent-seeming middle-class existence. This is easily the best piece of writing in the play, and Sullivan gets straight at the text instead of marking it up with crayons as the other performers do.

It’s nothing new that theatregoers and filmgoers, too, get taken in by acting that announces itself as acting; people are misled into believing that if you can see it’s acting, it must be the real thing. It’s the reason that all four leading performances in American Hustle, which the actors wear like their flamboyant clothes and hairstyles, won praise and Oscar nominations; it’s the reason Meryl Streep gets away with murder. I don’t mean to suggest that the only good acting is naturalistic; I love watching Bette Midler and Bill Murray, not to mention Jimmy Cagney and Katharine Hepburn and Buster Keaton. But I can’t be the only person who’s tired of acting that looks like it was tricked up to entertain friends at a party.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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