Saturday, February 23, 2008

Review - The Sign In Sidney Brustein’s Window - Starting Gate Productions - 3 stars

“There are two kinds of loneliness in this world - with a man, and without one. I picked. And let’s face it, I can’t type.”

This is a tough one.

So, three sisters walk into a bar, er... a Greenwich Village apartment in 1960s New York - a housewife, an actress/waitress, and a whore. Guess which one has the best set of coping skills?

After seeing the Starting Gate production of Lorraine Hansberry’s play “The Sign In Sidney Brustein’s Window,” I don’t feel like I need to see this play again. I don’t believe I’m going to see it done better. Director Lynn Musgrave and her team take what could have been a very static, talky play and manage to keep the thing moving. Definitely an “A” for effort here. The problem is that the play itself is a trainwreck.

Sidney Brustein” is both a product and a victim of its times. It is a deeply, and unrelentingly, cynical play - often jaw-droppingly racist and sexist. At the time it was originally produced in 1965, Hansberry herself was dying (taken to and from many rehearsals in a wheelchair). Though many great upheavals and disappointments of the decade were yet to come, JFK’s recent assassination and the escalation of the war in Vietnam would probably have gotten even the most dogged optimists a little down. Still, the crushing of nearly every character’s dreams and spirit in this play seems a bit much.

That doesn’t mean that the play is without its bright spots and humor - far from it. Hansberry, even here, has a great love of and way with words. They tumble out of her characters’ mouths in torrents. In fact, there are so many clever people on display that it is often a lot of fun just to watch them spar with each other.

Trickiest of all is the title character, and Rob Frankel as Sidney anchors the play and production in a way they both very much need. Sidney is a bastard. A clever bastard, sometimes sweet, often charming, but still a bastard. He is mean to family, friends and neighbors alike, but most of all to his long-suffering young wife Iris (Bethany Ford). The fact that Frankel makes Sidney watchable over the entire three hour span of the play is something of a miracle, and he deserves a tremendous amount of credit for helping hold the whole thing together. The one satisfying comeuppance Sidney gets by the play’s end is that each and every thing he thought he knew, even about the people closest to him, turns out to be completely wrong.

The biggest applause, however, has to go to Jean Salo as Sidney’s sister-in-law, Mavis. Hansberry obviously loved this character because Mavis gets nearly all the best lines in the play. Salo takes full advantage of each and every one of them. Mavis at first appears to be an object of mockery, the safe little housewife in her suburban existence, trying to force her taste and standards on everyone around her. As the play goes on and Mavis’ life is revealed to be anything but what it seems, Salo’s performance takes on unexpected depth and even nobility. The chief joy of her appearances, however, is watching her lay out the hypocrisies of the supposedly caring and compassionate left wing nut jobs she’s inherited from her sister’s marriage. Mavis is also hypocritical, and outrageously racist about almost everything and everybody, but in Salo’s hands, she becomes a character we deeply miss when she vanishes from the play for the final act.

There’s a lot of vanishing and sudden resurgences going on, in fact. It’s one of the many things that makes the play so structurally baffling to watch. Iris’ other sister, Gloria, the much-whispered-about whore, doesn’t appear until the final act and never crosses paths with either of her sisters, or the man she supposedly loves and plans to marry. Rachel Finch as Gloria is wonderful. She has a lot to live up to after all that build up in the previous two acts, and Finch delivers. She also makes us regret the many missed dramatic and comic opportunities her character might have had, were the play different. As she made her final exit into the dark, I found myself thinking, “What a waste of a perfectly good whore.”

Oddly dominant in the play’s closing scenes was Wally O’Hara (Dale Pfeilsticker) as the dark horse candidate for election who Sidney backs to unexpected victory. More Trojan Horse than dark horse after all, Wally is supposed to become the embodiment of “the system” at the end. But the political windmills that Sidney is tilting at are always so vague in the script, and Wally has been so largely absent for the bulk of the play, that it’s hard to work up any sadness or indignance at “the man” stealing back the power from the people right under their noses. Pfeilsticker does his best to inject good-natured Wally with some menace at the end, but the play doesn’t give him a lot with which to work.

Just passing through for reasons unclear in the text - hippy artist Max (Tom Emmott), who Sidney’s wife rightly pegs as self-consciously arty; and gay playwright next door David (Clarence Wethern), a confused and confusing closeted character with his pre-Stonewall, pre-Boys In The Band love interest kept conspicuously offstage.

The person with the toughest mountain to climb is Bethany Ford as Iris, and she succeeds as much as the play will let her. Ford is saddled with so much contradictory exposition and so many wild mood swings, it almost makes you forget that Iris is not just the worst, but also the very best, actress Sidney has ever known. Onstage, Iris’ talents are meager, but in real life, she pulls off the biggest masquerade of any of the characters, fooling the smug Sidney completely. It is an irony that the play and production don’t get enough of a chance to explore and appreciate fully. The dated nature of the play is never more apparent than in Iris’ agonies over her sham of a career, as she has been forced to lower herself to doing commercials. Oh no! Paid work as an actor in commercials?! The horror! I know a dozen actor friends off the top of my head that would gladly take Iris’ work opportunities off her hands for her.

Another character you wish would return rather than vanish for the final act is Alton Scales - activist, journalist, and would-be Prince Charming for Gloria the whore. Alton is also African-American. Though light-skinned, he’s also pretty thin-skinned about racial issues. As portrayed with a lot of easy-going charm by Santino Craven, Alton is sometimes so laid back, the audience can forget how deeply he feels things. One of the biggest opportunities the play fails to capitalize on is the romance between Alton and Gloria. The courtship takes place completely offstage. We are told, rather than shown, everything. Alton discovers Gloria’s unsavory career offstage - from who, we never know, even though every other character in the play but Alton seems to be aware of it - including minor characters like the gay playwright next door. Both sides of the big break-up take place in isolation - Alton gives Sidney a letter which is then turned over to Gloria later. It is only because Santino Craven and Rachel Finch individually convey their anguish so heartbreakingly - to Sidney (?!) - that we understand how much the loss of the unseen relationship means to them both. A lot of credit needs to go to Craven and Finch for delivering what the play fails to - emotional investment in characters that makes you want to see more of them - you know, onstage, as a couple. Another head-scratcher of a missed opportunity. But again, the play’s fault, not the production’s.

The expansive set by Michael Hoover gives the characters a lot of room to roam, and Musgrave and company put it to good use. It’s a little rough around the edges, but I was never able to make up my mind whether or not that was a deliberate choice. Gregory Johnson’s props filled out the world of the play nicely without overwhelming it in random “stuff.” The costumes from Mandi Johnson were great. Mark Webb pulled off another lighting design challege in the Mounds Theatre quite handily. The sound design, by director Musgrave, was good, but had me more than a little confused at the one point in the play where fantasy and reality were at cross purposes. Under the circmstances, I’m willing to lay more of the blame at the play’s feet, however.

The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” was a bold choice by Starting Gate - the last major play from an important theatrical voice silenced too soon. It’s unfortunate that all the characters and multiple plot threads here didn’t add up to anything in the end, despite a lot of artists’ significant efforts on its behalf.

Starting Gate’s production of “The Sign In Sidney Brustein’s Window” runs through March 16, 2008 at the Mounds Theatre (1029 Hudson Road in St. Paul). For tickets and further information, call 651-645-3503 or visit

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