In “Clyde’s,” a savory comedy written by Lynn Nottage, better known for her bitter tragedies, Uzo Aduba portrays Clyde, the sexy but heartless owner of a truck stop where all four of her employees are ex inmates, as is she. The chief joke of the play, which is running at Second Stage’s Helen Hayes Theater through January 16, is how seriously the employees take the art and craft of sandwich making, especially Ron Cephas Jones as Montrellous, whom the others worship for his culinary gifts.
The chief delight of this production, directed by frequent Nottage collaborator Kate Whoriskey, is the art and craft of the theater making, by an extraordinarily talented cast, and also by the designers, who get whimsical and weird (in a good way.)
Those who know Nottage only by her two plays that won Pulitzer Prizes in Drama – “Ruined,” about the targeted women in the war-torn Congo, and “Sweat,” about the broken down factory workers in a Pennsylvania town that’s imploded — might consider “Clyde’s” to be her “Ah, Wilderness!” — Eugene O’Neill’s only comedy, an uncharacteristically warm portrait of a middle class family. In truth, Nottage has written comedies before, such as “Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine” (And she’s written the libretto for Broadway’s forthcoming “M.J. the Musical,” about Michael Jackson.)
Still, the comparison has some juice. Like O’Neill’s play, “Clyde’s” offers a warm portrait of a family (though in this case, a makeshift one, formed in a workplace) — and also like O’Neill’s play, despite the lightness, “Clyde’s” presents characters who have lived lives edged with sadness and struggle. (Unlike O’Neill’s, the struggles of Nottage’s characters, in keeping with the social consciousness that marks all her work, are rooted in a political culture that pushes whole groups of people into the margins of society.) Indeed, as I realized late in Nottage’s new play, one of the characters from “Clyde’s” was also a character in “Sweat.”
This is Jason (portrayed here by Edmund Donovan), who is a newly hired employee, the only white person on the payroll, covered with white supremacist tattoos from prison. At first, there is the hint of tension with his co-workers, Letitia (Kara Young), the single mother of a disabled child, and Rafael (Reza Salazar), who pines, respectfully (and comically), for “Tish.” Jason winds up the most transformed over the course of the play, largely, it seems, by his co-workers’ search for the perfect sandwich. Some of the most charming scenes occur when the four of them stand at their work stations in Takeshi Kata’s set of a restaurant kitchen fantasizing aloud their ideal gourmet creation (Montrellous: “fried quail egg salad with mint on oven-fresh cranberry pecan multigrain bread”) while reluctantly putting together a ham and cheese on white for Clyde. These scenes are made more amusing when lighting designer Christopher Akerlind bathes them in a sensuous, nearly holy glow, with composer Justin Hicks’ and sound designer Justin Ellington’s aural suggestion of celestial bliss.
Jason becomes a convert, but not as devoted initially as he would like. He confesses to Montrellous: “The other day a trucker wanted ketchup on his tuna salad, and it made me sick. But I did it, and I feel ashamed Montrellous. I did not have your resolve.”
“I understand,” Montrellous replies, as always ready to offer absolution.
Montrellous feels nearly saintly — so much so, that one begins to suspect some kind of Biblical metaphor at work here, especially since Clyde is such a devil. Several times, there is even an inexplicable burst of flames on stage.
“I’m not indifferent to suffering, but I don’t do pity,” Clyde says near the beginning of the play (sounding indifferent to suffering), and she doesn’t offer any more sympathy — or become more sympathetic — by the end. (We do hear the faintest suggestion of an abusive childhood, but it’s drowned out by her own abusiveness.)
But if the character of Clyde is largely one note, Aduba offers a near symphony of a comic performance. She harasses and teases her employees, barks and berates. She sways her hips in a sexy dance that’s designed to demean them. The actress is probably best known as Crazy Eyes Suzanne in “Orange is the New Black,” but here is completely transformed into such a domineering and denying authoritarian that Rafael and Letitia tell Jason that she was cruel to people as a living. “She’s like a licensed dominatrix,” Rafael says. “I heard her husband changed the safe word, but she couldn’t remember it,” Letitia says.
Letitia is offering the reason why Clyde wound up in prison. I’m guessing this is her speculation. But Jennifer Moeller’s costumes for Aduba make this feel plausible. They are outrageous, and endless — a new one every scene — and increasingly hilarious.
Aduba and Jones (alumnus of “This Is Us” and “Between Riverside and Crazy“) are the best-known of the five-member cast, and they are both terrific. But I need to speak up about the other three performers, because you will definitely be hearing from them. (Allow me the vanity of pointing out that I said the same thing about Timothée Chalamet in my 2016 review of his stage performance in “Prodigal Son”)
“Clyde’s” marks Kara Young’s Broadway debut, but she has offered one stunning performance after another over the past two years Off-Broadway and online: She was adorable in C.A. Johnson’s “All the Natalie Portmans,” and fierce as the street urchin in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “Halfway Bitches,” then both fierce and adorable as the 18-year-old title character in Paula Vogel’s revival last year of Eisa Davis’s “Bulrusher.”
In that last play, she performed opposite Edmund Donovan, who, too, has shined in radically varied roles over the past couple of years, in Lewiston/Clarkson and Greater Clements. They, and Reza Salazar, whom I saw in Luis Alfaro’s mesmerizing, brutal adaptation of Sophocles’ tragedy, “Oedipus El Rey,” and Elizabeth Irwin’s My Mañana Comes (which is also about kitchen workers), are transformed here once again, proving themselves adept in comic timing. There is a great comic ballet, for example, when none of Rafael’s co-workers have shown up, and he is left alone in the kitchen to handle the orders, and the sink, and the stove. At the same time, all three of these actors retain the credibility of characters grounded in reality, ones with whom we can empathize.
One by one, each of the characters (except Clyde) eventually offer up monologues about what they did to do time. None of the characters in “Clyde’s” are hardened criminals. All had decent or at least understandable motives initially; all acknowledge they made a mistake. One was even innocent of the crime for which he was convicted, a sacrifice he made to help somebody else. (I think you can guess which one.)
If this sounds less than fully representative of the formerly incarcerated population, I prefer to see this not as the playwright’s effort to gloss over reality in order to create a comedy that wins over our sympathies. Rather, let’s imagine that the character Clyde made sure to hire people who were essentially good.
That way, we can hope that, deep down, she is too.
Helen Hayes Theater through January 16, 2022 (the final two weeks of performances will also be live-streamed)
Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $59 to $149 (student rush: $25; mobile rush: $32)
Written by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Kate Whoriskey
Scenic design by Takeshi Kata, costume design by Jennifer Moeller, lighting design by Christopher Akerlind, sound design by Justin Ellington, original compositions by Justin Hicks
Cast: Uzo Aduba as Clyde, Ron Cephas Jones as Montrellous , Edmund Donovan as Jason, Reza Salazar as Rafael, Kara Young as Letitia.