When is a sandwich more than a sandwich?
When it becomes a symbol of redemption, aspiration, and hope, as in Lynn Nottag’s newest piece, “Clyde’s,” a lively and fun, if sometimes ham-handed, – or should I say ham-on-rye-handed? – Comedy drama at the Helen Hayes Theater.
The backdrop is the eponymous Truck Stop Diner on a lonely stretch of road in Pennsylvania. The impeccably detailed set, by Takeshi Kata, shows the small kitchen, which is not cramped, and the window into the restaurant, where orders are placed and carried out.
Often through this window protrudes the sinister face of the owner Clyde, played by the formidable Uzo Aduba, an Emmy winner for “Orange Is the New Black”. More and more often Clyde storms around the kitchen, a volcano of anger, contempt and the occasional violent anger directed against her unhappy employees. (Even her colorful, figure-hugging Jennifer Moeller costumes are kind of aggressive, suggesting a superhero who has gone on to the dark side.) Thanks to its fleeting owner, Clyde’s is the textbook definition of a toxic work environment – especially since Clyde never dangles from his lip or finger without a cigarette, despite the no-smoking sign in the kitchen.
Yet, as Clyde knows, and her workers mockingly reminds of it, they have no choice but to work there. All of them are ex-inmates – just like her – and Pennsylvania job opportunities for ex-inmates are unlikely to be abundant.
As the play begins, kitchen manager Montrellous, played by Ron Cephas Jones, was telling Clyde the story of his imprisonment (we’ll hear about it later), to which she replied with a shrug of mockery, “I don’t feel sorry.” Just as pointedly – and more symbolically – she rejects the grilled cheese sandwich with garlic butter lovingly prepared by Montrellous. “You know I don’t eat that crap,” she snaps. Garnish is a dirty word for Clyde.
The other members of the staff are more sympathetic to the culinary discoveries of Montrellous; In fact, they quietly adore him and are tricked into preparing recipes for unusual sandwiches in the hopes of winning his approval. The moments in which these sandwiches are presented or discussed are often charged with dramatic intensity, with the lighting (by Christopher Akerlind) shifting to suggest a change into another, spiritually higher dimension. Kate Whoriskey, who also directed Nottage’s two Pulitzer Prize-winning plays “Ruined” and “Sweat”, doesn’t shy away from underlining the stylized aspects of the piece.
Letitia (Kara Young), a single mother in her twenties who, after a shoplifting, urgently needed the bare essentials for her daughter who was born with health problems (unfortunately, Letitia also snatched a few prescription), was already under Montrellous’ wise spell at the beginning of the piece Pills to sell). Rafael (Reza Salazar), a Latino man who, with his fiery temperament and passionate romantic passion for Letitia, leaves clichés behind, enthusiastically takes part in the chic sandwich competition.
The new crew member creates tension in the kitchen. Jason (Edmund Donovan), the only white employee, is adorned with racially tattoos that make him the target of suspicion. You could also put him in the crosshairs of Clyde’s abuse, which also includes derisive sexual aggression. Harassment comes in more flavors than there are approved condiments on Clyde’s shelves.
Even so, grumpy Jason warms up to the friendly environment that emerges among the crew by having a common enemy in Clyde. He too begins to experiment with exotic sandwich recipes. The camaraderie among the kitchen workers, characterized by funny banter and frequent taunts towards their employer, gives the piece a cheerful warmth.
And the performances are impeccable, with Young infusing Letitia with spirited vibrancy and an underlying sensibility surpassed by Salazar’s Rafael, whose attempts to woo her constitute one of the sadly foreseeable subplots.
Donovan reveals movingly how Jason, at first a bitter cipher, gradually opens and reveals (also predictably) that he regrets the youthful anger and ignorance that have led him down a dark path from which he tries to fight back. And Cephas Jones could hardly be better cast than the calm, supportive presiding spirit of Clyde, his slender but somehow towering presence and voice like rich molasses lend the character almost spiritual dignity.
Montrellous is in stark contrast to Clyde, whom Aduba attacks with a fiery hostility that almost never subsides – like the other characters, you almost flinch when she walks in. It is perhaps admirable that Nottage and Aduba refuse to let any hint of sentimentality creep into the character, but there is also something inhuman about their ultimately monotonous cruelty. (A moment of flashy pyrotechnics suggests that it may not be actually human.)
For the most part, Nottage establishes their characters and their eventful past and uncertain future economically and with sensitive nuances. Still, “Clyde’s” is also schematic, as scenes of the confrontation with Clyde (who seems inappropriate to both the owner and the only front-of-house employee) alternate with scenes of communal sandwich baking that bind the kitchen gang together. Periodically, we hear revelations about how the characters ended up behind bars.
The most momentous and detailed of these confessions comes, of course, from Montrellous. Unfortunately, halfway through his story, with a brother involved in a drug deal, it’s easy to guess how the story will end, making the ultimate reveal an anti-climax.
A somewhat abrupt end comes shortly after Montrellous finishes telling his story, when Clyde bursts into the kitchen again, scolding names and for once, her workers, inspired by what they have just heard, are in no mood to endure her viciousness. They have recognized collectively and individually that they have to make a decision: Either live under their oppressive regime indefinitely or find a new recipe for their future.
“Clyde’s” opened on November 23, 2021 at the Helen Hayes Theater.
Review photo: Joan Marcus
Producer: Second Stage Theater.
Creative: Written by Lynn Nottage; Original music by Justin Hicks; Director: Kate Whoriskey; Scenic design by Takeshi Kata; Costume design by Jennifer Moeller; Light design by Christopher Akerlind; Sound design by Justin Ellington.
Darsteller: Uzo Aduba, Edmund Donovan, Ron Cephas Jones, Reza Salazar und Kara Young.