Inside Clyde’s, it’s all about the recipe, the composition, and the layering. It’s a clever orientation, and as we watch these fine fine actors do their little tango becoming “one with the sandwich“, we can’t help but be mesmerized by the intense interaction that exists between these four characters that stand side by side in the kitchen, doing the main grunt work that makes that place, and in this piece of theatre thrive. Gathered together in the hot-fired heart of this fascinatingly adept new play by Lynn Nottage (Mlima’s Tale; The Secret Life of Bees) making its Broadway premiere at Second Stage’s Helen Hayes Theater, the mystic poetry of these cooks in the kitchen is on fire with dreamy energy and a solid spiced-up spark. Directed with force by Kate Whoriskey (Signature’s Fabulation, Or the Re-Education of Undine), Clyde’s is an intoxicating toxic, watching them create magic out of a chicken sandwich in a standard roadside diner. It is true theatrical art, crafting a layered sandwich of a play with this much flavor and heat. Dishing it up strong, the play’s strength is all in the electric writing and the enacting of it that makes the seasoned creation sparkle. Clyde’s doesn’t have the weight or the sting of her Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, Sweat or Ruined, but for what it lacks in grand themes, it certainly makes up for in personal storytelling and connection.
As the magnificently layered set opens up, giving us a window to see beyond the service counter, designed with an impeccable eye for reality and fantasy by Takeshi Kata (2ST’s Man From Nebraska), we are drawn to the fiery tough-as-nails owner of the place, Clyde, played with epic deliciousness by the amazing Uzo Aduba (Trafalgar Studios’s The Maids; “Orange Is The New Black“). She’s the powerhouse in this room, controlling it with every move of her meticulously crafted presence, thanks to some strong aggressive work by costume designer Jennifer Moeller (Public’s Tiny Beautiful Things). It’s a strong and intimidating character, and the fiery energy given off is almost visible, especially to the kitchen’s Zen master sandwich-maker, Montrellous, portrayed strongly by Ron Cephas Jones (“This Is Us“), who tries with all his might to find salvation in his epicurean dreams.
In his desire to elevate the art of sandwich-making in this run-of-the-mill diner, controlled with almost a cruel fist by Clyde, he’s basically a luncheonette Shaman; an inspiration and safety net to the others who work there, all just-released convicts, who can’t find any other establishment that would take them. With Clyde as their devilish gatekeeper, the diner is their lucky break while also being their internalized jailhouse torture chamber, keeping them safe but never letting them forget why they are trapped inside those kitchen walls. Almost capsizing the ship-like kitchen with her moves and her fierce attitude, Letitia, a single mother, fantastically played to the hilt by Kara Young (MCC’s All the Natalie Portmans), finds freedom to move to her own beat. Struggling to take care of her daughter, the energy she gives off is a survivor scared of what might be coming just around the corner, but holding tight to the security she finds in that hothouse kitchen.
Standing alongside her is the lovestruck former addict Rafael, powerfully portrayed by Reza Salazar (Public’s Oedipus El Rey), who is, along with Letitia, who he nervously is smitten with, constantly trying to rise up to the hypnotic and esoteric level of their sandwich mentor, Montrellous. The backstories of these three slowly sift out, and their connection and attachment only add to the sharp edge that cuts through the air of Clyde’s. But one of the most arresting souls to walk through those doors is the newcomer, naturally, the hard-looking but complicated Jason, beautifully portrayed with layers of vulnerability by Edmund Donovan, a detailed and intuitive actor who was absolutely magnificent in both LCT‘s Greater Clements and Rattlestick‘s Lewiston/Clarkson. He serves up a soft internal underbelly to this damaged white man, covered in Aryan Nation-style tatts, who just got out of prison, and is finding the road to stability and connection much harder than he ever imagined. He is the meat to this theatrical sandwich, with the other three cooks the tasty spicy condiments, and Clyde and Montrellous the opposing slices of bread.
It’s quite the inventive sandwich and backroom tale which is really about those three ex-convicts answering to the ding of the order bell, with the other two characters, also ex-convicts, mainly adding opposing fuel to the hot fire that is building up in that kitchen. Their engagement and survival of Clyde’s abusive treatment is something that is totally hypnotic to witness, reaching levels that are almost heroic. “Social hour’s over.” Clyde states, “Pick up the pace, or tomorrow I can get a fresh batch of nobodies to do your job. And I’ll make sure you go back to whatever hell you came from.” The way she walks in the room throws a scorching level of heat to the moment, making everyone in arm’s reach nervous that they might be the one whose hand is held close enough to the fire to be burned. It’s tense and disturbing, but it is also the spark that pushes these three together, and helps them try to rise about the monotony and blandness of the sandwiches they prepare at this particular truckstop diner.
Casting this character’s shadow back to Nottage’s Sweat, Donovan’s just-released Jason seems to be the product and outcome of the violent Jason that brought havoc to that Pennsylvania factory town in that 2017 play. His development through Clyde’s is the juice that makes this play sizzle in our mouth. Taking in his undercurrent of energy and anger, Donovan is masterful as he stands up or down to the soul-crushing art of Clyde’s epic swing and power stance. The displays of fierceness and fear that sautés in the heart of Jason, and really everyone who has to endure Clyde’s brutality, is the fuel to this dynamic fire. It’s what makes us lean in and take note, and even though Aduba’s devilish demeanor rules the roost, decked out in black and red leather flourishes, the focus never leaves Jason and his two cohorts making sandwiches in record time and dreaming about a more flavourful and free future.
Never fully diving into the surreal, as suggested in some spectacular moments of flash and fire by lighting designer Christopher Akerlind (Broadway’s Indecent), Clyde’s stays true to its course. Montrellous is the man who is part guru savior and graceful father, giving each of those souls something to hold onto and dream of. The crimes that put them in jail sometimes feel a bit too easy to feel empathy for, except for maybe Jason’s more violent act, the one that he has such a hard time forgiving himself for. And if you can ignore the drug relapse that doesn’t get much air time beyond a plot device, Clyde’s delivers up the spiritual sandwich with a delicious formulation, worthy of the paralleled rave the local newspaper critic gives the place, much like the play itself.
“I’m interested in the composition, it’s not merely about flavor. Dig?” Montrellous states, and we agree. Totally. And although it isn’t the heaviest of meals, something akin to a half-hour sitcom, something, oddly enough, that closely mirrors the set-up of the iconic TV show, “Taxi“, as someone wisely said to me post-show. But for a lunchtime/late-evening bite, this Second Stage production of Clyde’s is as tasty and filling as one could order up. There is a dark layer inside everyone’s dream, and if you are interested in a second helping of dreams and demons, the production recently announced that the final two weeks in January of Clyde’s limited engagement will be made available for live streaming. So slide up to that Second Stage counter, and order up one of their tasty layered sandwiches. Trust me and Montrellous, you won’t be disappointed.
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