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The employees of Clyde’s — an unassuming café sitting on a long stretch of road in Pennsylvania, and the name of Lynn Nottage’s new play — periodically indulge in a whimsical activity. As they fix plates for perpetually on-the-move and hungry truckers, the enterprising cooks enthusiastically trade visions of the perfect sandwich. They suggest spicy twists on classics (peanut butter and grape jelly with cinnamon and nutmeg), medleys of flavors (Cubano sandwich with sour pickles, jalapeño aioli and sweet onions) and sumptuous combos (Maine lobster on toasted potato roll, buttered with roasted garlic, paprika and cracked pepper with truffle mayo, caramelized fennel and a sprinkle of dill). At Clyde’s, sandwiches aren’t just convenient meals served at lunch and dinner; they tell stories, hold truths and nourish dreams.
Like most of Nottage’s work, Clyde’s, now on Broadway at Second Stage’s Helen Hayes Theater, centers the stories of forgotten people. The deft playwright’s dramas have a knack for getting to the heart of ordinary tales, rendering them with precision and re-presenting them in compelling ways. In Intimate Apparel (2004), Nottage delved into the life of a talented Black seamstress, inspired by the author’s great-great grandmother, who falls in love with a deceptive man; the devastating Ruined (2009) chronicled the experiences of women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and in Sweat (2015), she weaved a powerful tale of economic angst and frustration set in a local bar in Reading, Pennsylvania, a factory town deeply impacted by the 2008 recession.
In Clyde’s, Nottage returns to Berks County, where Reading is located, to tell a different tale. The 95-minute play is not explicitly a sequel to Sweat, but it does include one of that work’s characters, which suggests some continuity — if only minor. Jason (now played by Edmund Donavan) has just landed a job at Clyde’s, the only place willing to hire formerly incarcerated people. He joins an intimate and diverse team: the fiery Letitia (the outstanding Kara Young), who is Black; lovesick Rafael (Reza Salazar), who is Latino; and the sagacious Montrellous (Ron Cephas Jones), who is also Black. All of them have served time, and the play takes a sobering, if occasionally mawkish, look at their lives after the fact.
Most of the motley crew, especially Tish, bristles at their newest colleague, who is covered in white supremacist tattoos. But they begrudgingly give him a tour of the small kitchen, an appropriately modest space beautifully designed by Takeshi Kata, and review the rules: Here are the workstations, two metal tables stocked with basic supplies; that, over there to the right, is the grill. Orders are picked up here, they say, pointing to a window looking into the café. And oh, whatever you do, don’t piss of the owner, Clyde (Uzo Aduba). Jason, who, of course, is white, struggles to adjust, and his frustration and occasional entitlement only further alienate him from the others.
Hovering in the background of the employee drama looms the menacing Clyde, a cold figure whose kitchen cameos strike terror in everyone’s hearts. The play opens with an unintimidated Montrellous telling her — an unsympathetic listener if ever there was one — a story from his life. At the end of his tale, Clyde icily asks: “Is there more you wanna say, or can I get on with my life?” The soft-tempered man, dressed in a casual dashiki and kufi, stares in wonder before imploring his boss to try his take on a grilled cheese sandwich. She refuses (“You know, I don’t eat that crap”) before discarding her cigarette, which ignites a roaring flame.
Initially, Clyde’s seems like it might revolve around Jason’s integration into the kitchen, with Clyde slipping in and out. That scene with Montrellous and the prickly owner is followed by a heated conversation between Jason and the others, which might have become repetitive and didactic if stretched over 90-plus minutes. Thankfully, Nottage heads in a different direction, and the drama blossoms into a poignant story about worker solidarity and the meaning of second chances, loaded with laugh-out-loud funny jokes. Under the assured and inspired direction of veteran Nottage collaborator Kate Whoriskey, the play is an absolutely thrilling experience.
The employees of the shop openly carry their regrets and anxieties — you can see it in their faces and in their mannerisms. Young, especially, delivers a powerful performance as Tish: It’s impossible to take your eyes off her as she confronts Jason about his tattoos, worries about her daughter or envisions her perfect sandwich.
In the safety of this kitchen, a nurturing environment cultivated by Montrellous, Tish and her coworkers are able to slowly shed shame, cry, laugh and console. Truths are revealed as the characters prepare orders and volley recipe ideas around. Amid talk of adding garnish and deciphering Clyde’s chicken-scratch, they speak candidly about what landed them in prison. Tish broke into a pharmacy to steal seizure medicine for her daughter; Rafael got high and tried to rob a bank “like from the movies”; Jason was locked up for aggravated assault. Why Montrellous served time is a mystery until the end.
Clyde frequently tests this support system. Aduba’s coruscating turn as the seemingly heartless café owner is captivating. Holding a cigarette in the corner of her mouth, she side-eyes her employees from the order window, raising her eyebrows at too little noise and too much laughter. She saunters across the stage in a series of flashy outfits (the costume design is by Jennifer Moeller), her wealth marking the difference between her and her underpaid workers. Her harassment demeans them. They live in fear of her temper. Cross her and she might do good on her threat to report you to the police.
Yet underneath the callousness are softer layers, expertly teased by Aduba’s deft shifts in emotional register, which are usually, in turn, swiftly suppressed. Jones’ Montrellous proves to be a near perfect sparring partner, his sweetness and relentless zen deliciously clashing with Clyde’s persistent pessimism.
Despite also having been incarcerated, Clyde has little detectable affection for her employees. And, of course, she does not share their reverence for creating the perfect sandwich. When the shop receives a glowing review in a local newspaper, Montrellous and the crew see this celebratory moment as a sign of the restaurant’s potential. But before they can indulge in their fantasies about menu changes and the like, Clyde cruelly reminds them of their place in this world (felons), who they answer to (investors) and the uselessness of dreams.
The searing moment wounds Tish, Rafael, Jason and even the usually unflappable Montrellous, but it also inspires collective courage. If Sweat cataloged the pain of betrayal, then Clyde’s finds itself exploring not just good versus evil, but the strength of solidarity. The economic conditions brought on by the pandemic and decades-long policies harming the poorest Americans have made working-class cooperation essential for survival. Fittingly, the play’s final moments find Clyde in a bitter face-off with her worn-down and discontented employees. No longer afraid, they, in a radical and quite beautiful moment, decide enough is enough.
Venue: Helen Hayes Theater, New York
Cast: Uzo Aduba, Ron Cephas Jones, Edmund Donavan, Reza Salazar, Kara Young
Director: Kate Whoriskey
Music, lyrics and book: Lynn Nottage
Set designer: Takeshi Kata
Costume designer: Jennifer Moeller
Lighting designer: Christopher Akerland
Sound designer: Justin Ellington
Presented by Carole Rothman, Khady Kamara
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