When is a sandwich more than a sandwich?
When it becomes a symbol of salvation, ambition, and hope, as in Lynn Nottage’s latest play, “Clyde,” it is lively and funny if sometimes unfamiliar—or should I say ham on rye? Comedy drama at Helen Hayes Theatre.
The setting is a truck potter’s dinner along a lonely road in Pennsylvania. The meticulously detailed collection, by Takeshi Kata, depicts the small kitchen, less than cramped away, and the restaurant window where orders are served and fulfilled.
Often looming through that window is the glowing view of the owner, Clyde, performed by Uzo Aduba, Emmy Award winner for “Orange Is the New Black.” Oftentimes, Clyde wanders around the kitchen, a volcano of annoyance, contempt, and sometimes violent anger against her hapless staff. (Even her brightly-colored, fitted costumes, by Jennifer Mueller, were somewhat aggressive, suggesting a superhero who has moved to the dark side.) Thanks to the fickle owner, Clyde is the epitome of a toxic work environment—especially since Clyde is never without a cigarette dangling from his lips or finger, despite the no-smoking sign in the kitchen.
However, as Clyde knows, and is happy to remind her workers, they have no choice but to work there. All of them are ex-convicts—as it is—and presumably, Pennsylvania job opportunities for ex-disabled people aren’t plentiful.
As the play opens, the large kitchen clerk, Montrelos, performed by Ron Cephas Jones, has just finished telling Clyde of his prison history (we hear about it later), to which she sarcastically replies, “I don’t do pity.” Equally clear – and more symbolically – she refuses. Grilled cheese sandwich with garlic butter lovingly prepared by Montrelos. “You know I don’t eat that crap,” she said. For Clyde, decorating is a dirty word.
Other team members are more sympathetic to Montrelos’ explorations of the culinary world; In fact, they quietly revere him, and are tempted to concoct recipes for unusual sandwiches, hoping to win his approval. The moments when these sandwiches are served or discussed are often charged with dramatic intensity, with the lighting shifting (by Christopher Akerlind) to signal a transition to another, more spiritual dimension. Kate Whiskey, who also directed Pulitzer Prize-winning Nottage plays “Ruined” and “Sweat” isn’t shy about emphasizing aspects of theatrical style.
Under the spell of a sage-like Montrellous as the play begins, there’s Letitia (Kara Young), a single mother in her twenties who spends her time after stealing much-needed necessities for her daughter, who is born with health problems (and unfortunately, Letitia also gets some prescription pills). medical order buys). Also enthusiastically entered into the fancy sandwich lottery is Rafael (Reza Salazar), a Latino man who disguises the fiery temperament and fervent romantic fervor of the Letitia stereotype.
The new member of the crew raises tension in the kitchen. Jason (Edmund Donovan), the lone white employee, is decked out with racist tattoos that make him an object of suspicion. They may also put him in the crosshairs of Clyde’s abuse, which includes ridiculous sexual assault. The teasers come in more flavors than the shelf-stable spices in the Clydes.
However, sullen Jason warms to the friendly environment created among the crew by having a common enemy in Clyde. He also begins experimenting with strange recipes for sandwiches. The camaraderie of the kitchen workers, characterized by the comical attack and frequent mockery of the employer, lends the play a playful warmth.
The performances are impeccable, with Young Letitia imbuing with racy vibe and underlying sensuality, offset by the performance of Raphael Salazar, whose attempts to woo her provide one of the unfortunate subplots to be predicted.
Donovan poignantly reveals how Jason, at first a bittersweet blade, gradually unfolds, revealing (predictably) that he regrets youthful anger and ignorance that led him down a dark path from which he is trying to return. And Cephas Jones can hardly be represented as the calm and supportive spirit of Clyde, his slim but somewhat towering presence and rich molasses-like voice that lends the character an almost ecclesiastical dignity.
Montrelos is a stark contrast to Clyde, whom Aduba accuses of explosive animosity that never rests – As do the other charactersI was about to wince every time I entered. It’s perhaps admirable that Nottage and Aduba refuse to allow any hint of emotion to creep into the character, but there’s also something inhuman about her monotonous cruelty at the end. (A moment of sparkling fireworks indicates that she may not actually be a human.)
For the most part, Nottage grounds its characters, their turbulent pasts, and their economically uncertain future with nuance. But Clyde is nonetheless schematic, with scenes of confrontation with Clyde (paradoxically appearing the owner and sole worker in front of the house) alternating with scenes of group sandwich-making that tie the kitchen gang together. At regular intervals, we hear revelations about how the characters ended up behind bars.
The most important and most detailed of these confessions come, of course, from Montrillos. Unfortunately, it’s easy to guess how the story will end in the middle of his tale of a brother caught up in a drug deal, making the final revelation something of a meltdown.
A somewhat abrupt end arrives shortly after Montrelos tells his story, when Clyde storms the kitchen and releases the abuse, once again, and, inspired by what they have just heard, finds her workers for once in a mood to not let them deal with her cunning. Collectively and individually they realized that they needed to make a decision: either to live under its oppressive regime indefinitely, or to come up with a new recipe for their future.
“Clyde” opened at the Helen Hayes Theater on November 23, 2021.
Photo Caption: Joan Marcus
Producers: Stage Two Theatre.
Creative: Written by Lynn Nottage; original music by Justin Hicks; directed by Kate Whiskey; landscape design by Takeshi Kata; costume design by Jennifer Muller; Lighting Design: Christopher Ackerlind; Sound design by Justin Ellington.
Cast: Uzo Aduba, Edmund Donovan, Ron Cephas Jones, Reza Salazar and Kara Young.