No living playwright deserves the lights, fame and flattery of Broadway more than Lynn Nottage. She’s a decorated writer of conscience and intense moral exploration (with Pulitzers for Ruined and Sweat) who also has a crack TV-writer’s gift for smart, nimble banter and distinct, memorably complicated characters. It’s very cool that her new play Clyde’s came straight to Broadway rather than opening downtown, because I think it has a shot of running for a while there. Imagine a Black woman playwright with box office clout in America. That would explode the collective brain of the commercial producing cabal!
Clyde’s is the broadest comedy Nottage has written, and Kate Whoriskey’s direction broadens it still more. If that worries you, let it go. The show is remarkably thoughtful, fierce, and grounded, and its big production choices feel exactly right for the material. The cast is exceptionally fine and they justify all the amplifications with precise expressive gags, tics and eccentricities that they clearly came up with themselves.
The action takes place in the kitchen of a truckstop diner in Berks County, PA, where every employee is an ex-con. Over 95-minutes, we learn their luckless and pitable back-stories. The proprietor Clyde, who treats everyone as insignificant and replaceable, also did time, though we have to guess why. She gives ambiguous answers and her hard-boiled meanness is legendary. What’s more, the kitchen isn’t wholly realistic. Vaguely miraculous events and dozens of sudden, spectacular lighting cues make clear that we’re in a sort of limbo or purgatory and Clyde may be the devil.
Uzo Aduba’s Clyde is a tightly wound tangle of bellicosity and spite. Because she hires ex-cons fresh out of prison when no one else will, you first expect her to have a soft side, but that’s soon dashed. She berates Letitia (Kara Young) for lateness, knowing full well she’s a single mother with patchy child care whose crime was stealing drugs for her chronically ill daughter that insurance wouldn’t pay for (along with “some oxy and addy to sell on the side”). She also scolds and beats Rafael (Reza Salazar), though he’s obviously just a sweet, romantic kid whose offence was getting high and robbing a bank with his nephew’s BB gun to get money to buy his girlfriend an expensive dog (and accidentally shooting a security guard in the mouth with a BB).
Young and Salazar are so endearing in these roles that it’s tempting to read Clyde’s persecution routine as a game. The kitchen’s pass-through window, for instance, becomes a site for Clyde (who for some reason is the diner’s only waiter) to play at being hateful. She periodically shows up abruptly there just to scare the daylights out of others. At one point she maliciously posts a handful of order tickets there one at a time, ducking out of sight after each bell ring, so that Rafael has to run back and forth from the grill to pick the tickets up. She also keeps appearing in new flashy outfits (designed by Jennifer Moeller).
Two other ingredients are dropped into this comic-toxic solution that threaten to destabilize it. One is Montrellous, an unflappable and sagacious sandwich connoisseur—played with butter-smooth suaveness by Ron Cephas Jones—whom the other kitchen-workers idolize. He constantly proposes new menu items to lift the diner’s profile (and the staff’s dignity) and is repeatedly slapped down by Clyde.
Montrellous: Maine lobster, potato roll gently toasted and buttered with
roasted garlic, paprika and cracked pepper with truffle mayo, carmelized fennel and a sprinkle of...of...dill . . .
Clyde: Where’s my ham and cheese on white? (Reverberating) NOW!
The other ingredient is Jason—the only white character, played with wiry poise by Edmund Donovan—whose arms and face are covered with white-supremacist tats and who comes close to a violent faceoff with Clyde. Jason turns out to be the character from Sweat who, enraged at the loss of his factory job, went to prison for attacking a Columbian-American busboy. In Clyde’s he’s fraught with regret and trying to move on.
Another playwright—maybe even Nottage at another time—would have taken these elements and forced them into a tidy and purposeful plot. Interestingly enough, Nottage doesn’t do that. Instead she de-racializes the tension—at one point Jason just tearfully confesses and apologizes to Montrellous as if to his busboy-victim—and then lets Montrellous’s challenge to Clyde linger, resound, and hang in the air for whatever we want to make of it.
The play does have a climax of sorts involving a showdown over pickle relish and Montrellous’s latest exquisite sandwich, but it’s more a coup de théâtre than a ringing moral. My reading is that Montrellous has a sort of humble superpower that comes from his ability to concentrate, focus on a chosen task and accomplish it well even if others think it’s unimportant. In other words, he’s an artist whose materials happen to be sandwich ingredients. Many of his lines even sound lifted straight from a creative workshop: he keeps it gentle and positive, speaks to people’s strengths if he criticizes them, encourages them to believe in themselves, and (mostly important) makes clear that talent isn’t enough. You also need perseverance, sometimes the unreasonable and stubborn kind, to make art or live life well.
Jason: So you don’t like it.
Montrellous: I didn’t say that. You want it to do too much, and didn’t trust yourself with the ingredients. Let the natural flavors do the work. You put everything into this one sandwich. Edit. Pull back. Over complication obscures the truth.
Photo: Joan Marcus
By Lynn Nottage
Second Stage/Helen Hayes Theater