All the action in The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window occurs in the Brustein apartment. Act 1 opens on a late spring evening as Sidney Brustein and Alton Scales return to the apartment carrying cases of restaurant glasses, the remains of Sidney’s venture into the nightclub business. The failure of his nightclub/coffeehouse, however, does not deter Sidney from planning another venture—publishing a weekly community newspaper. Sidney has not yet informed his wife, Iris, of his plans, knowing that the revelation will create tension.
Sidney and Iris love each other, but their marital conflict animates half of scene 1. Alton exits, avoiding an impending argument, as Iris enters. Upon noting the cases of glassware, she immediately declares that the “residue” of Sidney’s “failures” is not to accumulate in their living room. When the conversation turns to news of a casting call which Iris plans to attend, Sidney counterattacks, singling out her inability to go to an audition. Their interaction intensifies, becoming scathing before it returns to safer channels. Iris defends herself with methods learned in therapy; Sidney discounts psychoanalysis, declaring that although she has seen an analyst for two years, “the only real difference is that you used to cry all the time and now you scream before you cry.” The tension gradually subsides until Iris discovers the sketch of the masthead for the newspaper. She demands to know how Sidney, with no financial resources, plans to support his latest endeavor.
The scene shifts when Alton returns, bringing with him Wally O’Hara, a politician running for office as the “reform” candidate. They have come seeking an endorsement of O’Hara’s platform by Sidney’s newspaper and appealing to him to become involved once again. Declaring his intention to abstain from “any kind of politics” because he no longer has such interests, Sidney rejects their appeal.
Scene 2 occurs one week later. A sign supporting O’Hara now hangs from Sidney’s window, showing his capitulation. While the sign frames the play’s developing conflicts, the action of the scene shifts from external political involvement to family politics and aesthetic arguments. The audience meets David Ragin, the avant-garde homosexual playwright living upstairs, and Mavis Parodus Bryson, Iris’s conservative older sister. Mavis does not understand the bohemian lifestyle of her sister and Jewish brother-in-law or their various Greenwich Village friends, nor can she acknowledge the extent of her own parochialism. Her limitations make her an object of ridicule in this setting; she does not know what “gay” signifies, and she is stunned upon learning that Alton, a fair-skinned African American, plans to marry her youngest sister, Gloria.
Act 1, the longest segment of the play, introduces most of the characters and establishes underlying conflicts and themes. It closes on an intense note, underscored by the Joan Baez recording of “All My Trials” filling a darkening stage. Mavis, Alton, and David having all left the apartment insulted or angry, Iris and Sidney return to bickering, each recognizing that something is leaving their marriage.
Act 2 has three scenes. Scene 1 opens just before dawn, the next day. Sidney has created an idyllic fantasy; skillful use of lighting and music transport him from New York to a rustic mountain retreat. The background noise changes to mimic country sounds. The Iris of his imagination, a barefoot Appalachian peasant girl with long flowing hair, appears in his fantasy to dance for him as he plays the banjo. With the dance finished, a light comes on in the apartment and a realistic Iris emerges to find Sidney on the outside stairway landing. The scene closes with the reappearance of the city and its noises.
Scene 2 shifts to an evening in late summer, several months later. Sidney has become more involved with the political campaign, but his relationship with Iris is increasingly strained....
(The entire section is 4,460 words.)