‘Clyde’s’ by Lynn Nottage, a Devil of a Comedy at 2NDSTAGE
Lynn Nottage’s talent combining humor and depth in her 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 Pulitzer Prizes, the first woman to ever do so. That her breadth encompasses ironic and other-worldly elements with comedic twists galore and an expose of cultural issues that empathy and social unity can resolve in this hysterical play, lights a path for playwrights who want to stretch their own talents. Additionally, her uniquely defined characters and situations, which show she is unafraid to push the envelope, is a further revelation 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, hyperbolic and cruel in all her ways. You know, the type that sends grown men screaming into the toilet to do a line of coke not to brain her with a meat mallet; the type that sends women weeping back into the arms of their former brutal lovers looking for financial support, so they don’t have to work at Clyde’s. 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 delicious as Montrellous’ noteworthy 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 three cooks. Hysterically, 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.
The veteran staff Clyde breathes fire over like a dragon-lady are 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 who stands up to Clyde, beautifully portrayed by Kara Young. 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, we might have been.
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, most of all, that they escape the clutches 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 where they’ve come, perhaps her tough discipline and brutality does reveal a knowledge of how to help ex-cons succeed. At the least this betrays a good heart somewhere behind the wall of titanium armor she’s had to create to confront a callous society that would see her dead and forgotten, rather than help her succeed and climb out of the abyss ex-cons face upon release back into the culture that indirectly exacerbated their landing in prison.
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 as his Montrellous quietly motivates the staff toward the goal of making a sandwich which expresses the goodness of life and manifests the sublime taste of everything beautiful one might wish of the creative force we all yearn for. Montrellous is likened to a Chris 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 delectable 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 conducted himself in the situation. Immediately, we understand who both are; Clyde is unrelenting in her icy, dark approach toward humanity. Montrellous is open-hearted, light-filled and clever in understanding the fastest way toward amity is through the hospitality and deliciousness of something home-made with love.
Nottage moves the play briskly forward as Clyde, the ever-psychically draining task-master compels her cooks to sling out food that attracts truckers hungry from their long hauls. Montrellous peacefully resists her attitude and encourages his mates to their high calling of making the perfect 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, quips, taunts. And when she enters their foody space, they must watch out for her quips may turn physical to keep her charges in line.
The intricacy of how, when and where our favorite ex-cons become the chefs that Montrellous inspires them to be, despite working in hell hole and at cross-purposes with a seemingly malevolent tiger-lady who pushes them to the emotional brink to fail, is a humorous and profound sight to behold. You will just have to see the play for the organic process of how this marvel of hope in humanity spins out by the conclusion.
The themes are all there in Nottage’s merry-go-round of humanity. Indeed, the culture has ground down these sterling individuals and deprived them of hope that landed them in prison through a single act. This is an indictment Nottage presses. Additionally, 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.
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 everyman and everywoman, of who have had to work terrible jogs to put food on the table. And it is for 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 profound 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-loved Clyde’s jazzy, sexy outfits for a truck-stop hostess) Christopher Akerlind (light dimming for Montrellous’ sacred, life-changing sandwich) Justin Ellington (sound design, eerie music for the sacred sandwich) Cookie Jordan (hair and wig design-especially for Clyde and Letitia) Justin Hicks (original music).
This is the perfect production for this time of year, any time of year. Beyond a must-see. For tickets and times visit the website: CLICK HERE.