As Lynn Nottage has matured and grown as a playwright her focus has narrowed. In plays like her Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined and Sweat she dazzled with the big sprawling panorama; in her recent plays like Mlima’s Tale she dealt with one theme. In her latest Broadway play, Clyde’s, now at The Helen Hayes Theater in a production by Second Stage Theater, she writes a very entertaining and satisfying comedy-drama about the rehabilitation of formerly incarcerated people now working in the kitchen of a roadside sandwich shop. Longtime collaborator Kate Whoriskey (Sweat, Ruined, Fabulation) directs a nearly perfect production with a cast led by two-time Emmy Award winning actress Uzo Aduba who dominates the stage whenever she appears.
While the play has the ring of truth as it based on her same research that Nottage used for Sweat, it introduces us to five totally diverse personalities who each have a different story. Clyde, a former inmate and an voluptuous and imposing woman, runs a sandwich shop for truckers on the Old Post Road outside of Reading, Pennsylvania. Her policy is to only hire former ex-cons and give them a second chance. As such she is able to bully them both mentally and physically as no one else will hire them and they desperately need these jobs to stay out of prison.
Montrellous (played by Ron Cephas Jones, Emmy Award winner for This Is Us) is a master chef but also calm, tranquil, composed, a mentor to the others. It is he who institutes the game of creating “the perfect sandwich” which gives the others something to strive for. Letitia (Kara Young), a young African American woman about to turn 30 who wants to be called Tish, is a single parent with a special needs child. She keeps men at a distance continuing to have trouble with her ex. Rafael (Reza Salazar, world premiere of Clyde’s as well as Sweat in Washington, D.C.), a young Latino man, is excitable as well as impressionable. He develops a passion for Tish which seems to be unrequited.
On the day the play begins, a new member of the staff appears to replace someone who has been rearrested: Jason (Edmund Donovan, Drama Desk, Lucille Lortel, Outer Critics Circle and Obie Awards for Greater Clements), a young Caucasian man who has white supremacist tattoos on his face, neck and arms but is as meek as a lamb and equally reticent and taciturn. Each one has a different back story which we hear by the end of the evening. Without our realizing it, we become very invested in the fates of these four people, rooting for them both in their lives and in their struggles with Clyde.
As the manager of the restaurant, Aduba gives one of those big performances which are larger than life, but we have all met that type of people. She batters, insults, cajoles, berates her staff: is it to drive them to new heights or she is paying the world back for her tough life? Is she an incarnation of the devil or Satan? The gas fires that shoot out of the stage periodically make us wonder. When they receive a rave review in a local newspaper she belittles them as though they had nothing to do with the restaurant’s success. Wearing a new and colorful skintight outfit by Jennifer Moeller and multiple hairdos by Cookie Jordan each time she enters through the swings doors from the restaurant into the kitchen, she is a bigger and bigger surprise by what she says and what she threatens. As the dangerous and intimidating Clyde, she gives an indelible performance; just try to take your eyes off of her when she is onstage.
Takeshi Kata’s realistic kitchen is also dream-like as it is lit in various colors by lighting designer Christopher Akerlind before it returns to normal when each scene begins. The transitions between time and scenes are also covered by different pieces of popular music by sound designer Justin Ellington as well as original music by Justin Hicks. Whoriskey’s direction keeps the pace bubbling along with Nottage’s snappy dialogue. Having a special knack for creating totally believable working class people, Nottage’s writing alternates between the vernacular and the poetic as the characters become more comfortable with each other both in their work and in their lives. The ending which is open to debate is very rewarding any way you interpret it. Another feather in Lynn Nottage’s cap and an ornament to this season of an unusually high number of new plays particularly by African American authors, six at last count.
Clyde’s (through January 16, 2022)
The Second Stage Theatre
The Helen Hayes Theater, 240 W. 44th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-541-4516 or visit http://www.2st.com
Running time: 95 minutes without an intermission