Uzo Aduba Spices Up Diabolical Dinner Drama Deadline
The quest to create the perfect sandwich takes on existential tones in Clyde, the tasty yet sometimes undercooked new comedy-drama from two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage. Although he does not have the weight of the great playwright Sweat, Clyde makes for an intriguing companion piece.
Starring Uzo Aduba and a calming Ron Cephas Jones, Clyde takes place at a truck stop sandwich shop in Pennsylvania, one of those last-ditch places that dot both concrete and metaphysical American highways, somewhere between the roadside hash joint of The petrified forest and the Double R Diner by Twin peaks. (Since it premiered in 2019 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, and in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, the original title of the play by Floyd has been changed).
Even before the first flash of flame erupts when a particularly evil character throws his cigarette to the ground, we suspect that Clyde’s menu offers a healthy dose of magical realism to spice up this realistic kitchen set. Well, almost realistic: set designer Takeshi Kata frames the whole thing in an asymmetrical neon blue Googie Architecture proscenium that immediately suggests some sort of platonic dinner ideal. The lights go out (courtesy designer Christopher Akerlind) and the tones go out (sound designer Justin Ellington) in a comically scary way when people are about to get deep. The quirky little touches of business on the stage suggest that we shouldn’t take everything we see at face value.
The first characters we meet are Clyde herself (Aduba, de Processing and Orange is the new black), the acrylic hard owner of the place, and Montrellous (It’s us’ Jones), the boutique Zen sandwich maker who dreams of taking the boutique from a greasy spoon to something far more ambitious, a place where he can create the elaborate sandwiches of his ever-expanding imagination.
Clyde will have none of that, desperate as she is to stick with white background cheese and tuna making the money to pay off what may or may not be serious gambling debts.
If Clyde’s manner with the elder Montrellous is abrupt, his treatment of the inferior kitchen staff is downright demonic. There’s Letitia (a fierce and poignant Kara Young), the black single mother raising a severely disabled daughter; Rafael (Reza Salazar, suitably manic and determined), a Latino whose amorous bravado with disdainful Letitia melts into frightening fear when the vicious Clyde storms in; and Jason (Edmund Donovan, digging the gap between intimidating appearance and vulnerable interior), a white man fresh out of prison whose Aryan nation style neck and face tattoos are his own hallmark. of Cain.
If this last character seems familiar to you, it is because he is the direct link with Sweat, Nottage’s 2017 Pulitzer winner who detailed, in a realistic and documentary style, the overwhelming effects of a global economy on the hardest-hit workers in an industrial town in Pennsylvania. Here, Nottage has followed the violent, prisoner Jason of Sweat to his post-prison buyout offer at Clyde.
And he came to the right place. Everyone at Clyde – including Clyde – is a former inmate, each striving for some sort of recovery, material, spiritual, or a combo plateau. The kitchen staff, including Montrellous, put up with Clyde’s nastiness – Rafael didn’t get that huge bruise on his chest from the tickling – because they have nowhere to turn.
Newcomer Jason, the target of Clyde’s sexual harassment and humiliating cruelty, takes the brunt of Clyde’s negative attention. She even threatens to invent lies to tell her parole officer to keep him online.
Clyde, if you haven’t guessed it yet, might just be the replacement for the devil reigning in this purgatory, able to kindle hellfire (literally) and terrorize his minions on a daily basis. Dressed in an impressive array of daringly provocative outfits, often with sizable displays of black faux leather and frills of devil red and midnight blue (Jennifer Moeller is the costume designer), the shattering Clyde (and the piece that bears her name) ever Quite becomes utterly surreal, but the flashes of magical realism that Nottage and his frequent collaborator and director Kate Whoriskey weave throughout the day to day work leaves no doubt that they have a soul nourishing spirit.
When the put together kitchen staff finally get some energy in the form of an unexpected rave from a newspaper reviewer, Clyde is quick to kill the mood. “Don’t disappoint me by having aspirations,” she intimidates. “Social hour is over. Pick up the pace, or tomorrow I can get a new batch
no one to do your job. And I’ll make sure you get back to the hell you came from.
Fortunately, the group has an angel: “Montrellous,” said Letitia, “is a sensei. Drop in garlic aioli like a reality bomb. He knows what we just want to know. A source of inspiration among cooks, Montrellous dispenses Zen advice and messages of empowerment with all the feeling he brings to his culinary tasks. He is a father confessor, guru and giver of tough love, all in a great bundle of grace. Here he describes his latest sandwich creation:
It’s all about order, baby. I am interested in the composition,
it’s not just about flavor. To dig? I think about
balance of ingredients and the route that I want the consumer
to take with every bite. Then finally how I can reach
unity with the sandwich.
When Letitia despairs of ever succeeding with her own creations, Montrellous reassures her with what might be the only words of love she has heard all week: “Think about your daughter,” he advises, “ what if you could create something perfect for her? Something that reflects your love. How about taking the few minutes it takes to actually make that sandwich? What if you decided to say with every drop of your special sauce, “I love you, Carmen. What if this sandwich represented your love… ”
To audiences, however, Montrellous’s compassion and forgiveness might be even more impressive if Nottage hadn’t stacked the humanity game so blatantly. With one exception, past crimes committed by lost souls and sandwiches of Clyde are built with a fairly heavy hand: Montrellous took a jail time so her younger brother could accept a scholarship, while Letitia robbed a pharmacy to get medicine for her sick daughter. Rafael was kicked out of his gourd during his criminal misadventure. Only Jason, expressing much pent-up rage when he hit a factory worker with scabs, seems to have had largely selfish reasons for his criminality, and he is tearfully sorry for that (and for the prison ink that he did. ‘he received as a survival tool on the inside).
All in all, this is a fairly easy group to forgive, and while it may be a creative choice on Nottage’s part – perhaps she is suggesting that everyone has their reasons for crossing over. the lines he crosses – it can also feel overly sentimental and woo-woo. Maybe that’s why Clyde, played by Aduba on a deliciously evil farewell, is presented to such an odd extreme: she’s the cayenne that keeps this recipe from overdosing on sugar.
Whatever its shortcomings – a character’s drug relapse, for example, gets mentioned and forgotten, and the play’s final, fiery, otherworldly moment doesn’t have the impact it should) , Clyde is a surprisingly friendly, funny and warm company with just enough slap in it not to lean too gooey.
In fact, halfway through, you might be struck by the idea of an engaging sitcom this piece could do, but you might also find that it already is. For all his current concerns, his news and his last-minute compassion, Clyde is Taxi with poetic garnish. It’s not hard to imagine Danny DeVito’s Louie De Palma sharing tactical advice with Aduba’s Clyde, or Judd Hirsch’s Alex Reiger offering a sympathetic ear to Jones’ Montrellous. Nottage has overhauled a winning recipe for the post-Trump era, and thanks to his determination and his heart, he keeps everything but the edges of a whiff of decay.
All the more reason to welcome the recent announcement that the last two weeks of January Clyde limited engagement will be available for live streaming. It’s a worthwhile experience, and Clyde conforms to the order.