All the review quotes for Lynn Nottage’s latest play declare it to be a bright spot of the season. I’m here to tell you they were right. How a play about poverty, incarceration, homelessness and drugs can remain buoyant (not cloying) is a marvel.
Clyde’s is a Reading, Pennsylvania truck stop diner staffed by ex-cons from a nearby prison. It’s also sadism central for Clyde herself (Uzo Aduba) who relentlessly and gleefully goads, rails at, degrades, and threatens employees, each onslaught accompanied by elaborate expressive gyration. (Clyde herself was a felon.) Low morale means control. Like a Disney demon, she pops up in the order window as if taunting rather than delivering chits. (A beautifully utilized element.) Her approach to food (and economics) – “If it ain’t brown or grey, it can be fried!”
Reza Salazar and Kara Young
A single older cook, Montrellous (Ron Cephas Jones), is the only one the larger than life owner seems to respect and back away from. Their stand-off involves his ambition to improve cuisine, something Clyde adamantly, oddly refuses even in the face of an unexpected review.
A calm Zen philosopher in the eye of the storm, food has been his salvation. The unlikely con approaches sandwich making like an artist, concocting heavenly combinations sampled by staff. (Rafael thinks of him as a Buddha.) In fact, he’s offended by customers who want, for example, ketchup on their tuna, eventually drawing a line in the sand. Clyde is clearly, eerily tempted (cue weird lighting) by these between-the-bread masterpieces, but will not even taste a submission.
Reza Salazar, Kara Young, Ron Cephas Jones, Edmund Donovan
Under the influence of Monty, kitchen staff approaches work with pride. Letitia (Kara Young), a single, Black mother whose child suffers from MS has a sharp tongue and spunk. Rafael (Reza Salazar), a Latino man with exploding hair and volatility/passion to match, barely hides a romantic side. The two play a game with Monty whereby each conceives an elaborate sandwich (edible hope) and the others judge. They stand in a line evoking Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. Salivation is immediate. If you haven’t dined before, prepare to do so afterwards.
Jason (Edmund Donovan), the newest employee, arrives with white supremacist tats that immediately alienate his fellows and proceeds to lick his fingers as he sloppily makes a sandwich. (The others are outraged.) “Respect the recipe!,” Letitia demands, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T!” His adaptation and eventual inclusion in the motley family are gradual enough to land, taking in the kitchen’s ethos with subtle registration. Insistence that the truck drivers appreciate his garnish shows us just how far he’s come.
Uzo Aduba, Kara Young, Ron Cephas Jones, Edmund Donovan, Reza Salazar
Lives are tough. Relationships shift. Imagination wins.
The piece is splendidly cast. Its company hums.
Lynn Nottage is original and often surprising. Reveals pepper the piece with a keen sense of timing. Each ex-convict’s crime is well thought out. Staff relationships are credible and poignant. Throughout dark humor rises to the top.
Director Kate Whorisky keeps the kitchen in perpetual, credible motion. Players have distinctive attributes from body language to tone. While Clyde herself is a cartoon, the others pointedly contrast. Only occasionally does one get so extravagant, he/she seems to breach the level of limbo in which they all exist. To my mind there’s just a tad too much shouting. In dramatic confrontation, it works, but when a line cook goes berserk, upset might arguably be otherwise displayed. Evolution of the kitchen’s most recent addition to staff is ably revealed.
Takeshi Kata’s kitchen set is so beautifully detailed, it looks ready to move in and cook. One of the glimpses into a walk-in refrigerator is inspired. Wowza pyrotechnics by J.& M Special effects.
Jennifer Moeller’s costumes are simply wonderful. Excelling with her idiosyncratic women characters, she shows humor and creativity in spades (and spandex).
Christopher Akerland’s lighting design intermittently adds a droll, spooky eeeooo tone.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening Uzo Aduba and Ron Cephas Jones
Second Stage Theater presents
Clyde’s by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Kate Whoriskey
The last 6 performances starting will be simulcast via streaming video.
Helen Hayes Theater
240 West 44th Street
Through January 16, 2022