‘Clyde’s’ by Lynn Nottage, a Devil of a Comedy at 2NDSTAGE
Lynn Nottage’s play Clyde’s presented by 2nd Stage, currently at the Helen Hayes Theater, is an intriguing switch off from her dramas for which she’s won two Pulitzer Prizes (Sweat-2017, Ruined-2009). Nottage is the first African American woman to do so. Clyde’s combines ironic and other-worldly elements with comedic twists galore and an expose of problematic cultural issues that empathy and social unity help to resolve. Her hybrid work lights a path for playwrights who want to stretch their own talents. Additionally, the uniquely defined characters and situations, which show she is unafraid to push the envelope, indicate that she will continue to evolve as an exceptional playwright. Clyde’s exemplifies the best of Nottage in “spades.”
Acutely directed with precision and grace by Nottage’s long-time collaborator Kate Whoriskey, Clyde’s highlights a group of down and out former convicts newly released from prison who can, to their great misfortune, only find work as cooks at the greasy spoon, truck-stop diner in Berks County Pennsylvania known as Clyde’s. The joint is named for its owner (the electric and terrifying Uzo Aduba), who operates it with a hands on approach and who is an insidiously bullying and unapologetic former convict herself.
Nottage has humorously configured Clyde as the mythic female “biach” employer who is hyperbolic and cruel in all her ways. She is the type that sends grown men screaming to the bathroom to do a line of coke, so they don’t brain her with a meat mallet. She is the malevolent force that sends women weeping into the arms of their former brutal lovers seeking financial support, so they don’t have to suffer her wrath ever again. Indeed, the sadistic dominatrix is the last person on earth you would ever want to work for. And as such, she’s an outsized and marvelous character, as delectable as Montrellous’ scrumptious sandwiches.
Uzo Aduba as Clyde brings the laughter and fear, having a blast violating every politically correct action and attitude toward the new ex-con addition to her cooking staff. Ironically, he is, a white supremacist in hiding (portrayed beautifully by Edmund Donovan), who is laying low to keep the job, and trying to make the peace with his three black/hispanic co-workers, who at another time in his life, he would have scorned and abused.
Clyde breathes fire over the veteran staff like a dragon-lady. They include the chef guru sandwich maker/leader Montrellous (the wonderful Ron Cephas Jones); Rafael (the hot-blooded, sensitive, full of life Reza Salazar); and the empathetic, dynamic Letitia. Portrayed with nuance by Kara Young, Letitia eventually stands up to Clyde with impunity. By the end of the play, we come to know the deep, resilient and loving core of each of these former convicts down to the reason why they went to prison. And we understand that in each of their former lives, there, but for the grace of God go any of us.
Nottage’s craft and Whoriskey’s incisive shepherding of her actors to encourage their spot-on authenticity allow us to stand in these ex-cons’ shoes and wish that every good thing might happen to them. Of course Nottage has us especially wishing they escape the claws of the sinister Clyde. Indeed, though Clyde appears to be looking for any excuse to fire them and return them to the Arctic reaches of emotional devastation from whence they came, perhaps her tough discipline and brutality does reveal a knowledge of how to help ex-cons succeed. At the least her iron discipline betrays a good heart somewhere behind the wall of titanium armor she’s had to create to confront a callous society. She makes it very clear that she is as hard as concrete to survive in the culture that would see her dead and forgotten, rather than help her climb out of the abyss ex-cons face upon release back into the environs that indirectly provoked their prison sentences.
The explosive situation yields a myriad of possibilities as Nottage and Whoriskey unspool the relationships among the cooks who eventually form their own solid community led by their sensei Montrellous. Cephas Jones is masterful. His Montrellous quietly motivates the staff to make the “perfect” sandwich which embodies the goodness of life and manifests the sublime taste of everything beautiful that artistic foody genius expresses. Montrellous is likened to a Christ figure of love, peace and encouragement against Clyde’s Satanic, sardonic, sadistic boss woman, reputed to have made a “deal with the devil” to keep alive Clyde’s her reason d’etre.
It is rollicking fun to watch Jones’ Montrellous and Aduba’s Clyde as they confront each other in a dynamic relationship that begins at the top of the play. Montrellous tantalizes Clyde to taste his heavenly sandwich as he shares a story of his past. She humorously resists him in never sampling the goodness he’s created, nor agreeing with how he’s conducted himself. Immediately, we understand who both are; Clyde is unrelenting in her icy, dark approach toward humanity. Montrellous is open-hearted, light-filled and clever. He teaches the staff that the fastest way toward amity is through the hospitality and deliciousness of something home-made with love. Of course Clyde resists him. Their relationship is symbiotic until it isn’t.
Nottage moves the play briskly forward as Clyde, the ever-psychically draining task-master compels her cooks to sling out food that lures truckers hungry from their long hauls. Montrellous peacefully sidesteps her attitude and encourages his mates to their high calling of making the enlightened sandwich to bring them the pride and strength of this new calling. As the food is plated, Clyde pops up at the window where she collects their sandwiches, dishing abuse, making searing quips and sizzling taunts. And when she enters the kitchen, they must watch out, for her snarky epithets may turn physical to keep her charges in line.
This comedy with a profound message insinuates itself with flavorful intricacy. Soon we’re hooked. How, when and where our favorite ex-cons become the chefs that Montrellous inspires them to be, despite working in a hell hole and at cross-purposes with a seemingly malevolent tiger-lady, who pushes them to the emotional brink to fail, is a revelatory sight to behold. You will just have to see the play for the organic process of how the hopes of the ex-cons and Montrellous’ faith in humanity spins out by the conclusion.
The themes are all there in Nottage’s merry-go-round of antic figures. The culture has ground down these sterling individuals and deprived them of encouragement and self-love so that they’ve landed in prison through a single act. This is an indictment Nottage presses. Additionally, she suggests individuals like Clyde can become like devils pressured to abuse their staff in order to tow the bottom line.
Even a small dive like Clyde’s reflects a microcosm of the corporate macrocosm of abuse. What happens in Clyde’s, as humorous as it is, speaks volumes. It is representative of the monumental struggle that exists between the “right to work” tyrannical employer, for whom constitutional rights do not exist, and those who need to survive and will take any job that they can get. Indeed, Nottage’s sub rosa theme is there must be a better, more decent way. And of course, through the attitude and mien of Montrellous we see it enacted, encouraged and through it, a way of escape for the ex-cons.
Clyde’s works on so many levels. One may appreciate the raw humor, the symbolism, the characterizations which are priceless and memorable and the vital and current themes. This is a play of representative men and women, who have had to work terrible jobs to put food on the table. Finally, the play speaks to those professional or amateur chefs who love to eat and prepare “the food of life,” so that others may come and receive health, wholeness and love. Look for the especially salient themes. You will not be disappointed and may even fall in love with this unforgettable production.
Final kudos go to the creative team whose set design, props (real sandwiches…yum), lighting effects, sound and costumes help to hit this out of the theater ballpark. These include Takeshi Kata (scenic design); Jennifer Moeller (costume design…I loved Clyde’s jazzy, sexy outfits for a truck-stop hostess); Christopher Akerlind (lighting design…there were dimmed lights for Montrellous’ sacred, life-changing sandwich); Justin Ellington (sound design…his eerie music was appropriate for the sacred sandwich); Cookie Jordan (hair and wig design). Finally, Justin Hicks’ original music was spot on for the tone and tenor of Clyde’s.
This is the perfect production for this time of year or any time of year. For tickets and times visit the website: CLICK HERE.