Uzo Aduba, of In Treatment and Orange Is the New Black, plays the hilariously tyrannical proprietor of her self-named truck-stop diner in Clyde’s. She lords it over her crew of short-order cooks trying to reclaim their lives — and create the perfect sandwich — in Lynn Nottage’s hopeful comedy at the Helen Hayes Theater.
Tough and brassy, Clyde is a no-nonsense businesswoman exasperated by her staff of kitchen workers, all formerly incarcerated and with few other employment options. For them, the kitchen is another prison, and Clyde, a former felon herself, can be a ruthless warden. “If you don’t like the way I run things, you’re welcome to leave,” she taunts, “but good luck with that.”
Garishly and provocatively dressed, sometimes in satanic red, Clyde is, to her employees, “like a licensed dominatrix” whose “husband changed the safe word, but she couldn’t remember it.” Hardened by her own stint behind bars, she’s the embodiment of Paulo Freire’s theory that the oppressed often become the oppressors.
Briskly and confidently directed by Nottage veteran Kate Whoriskey, Clyde’s is set in the same blue-collar milieu of Berks County, Pennsylvania as Sweat, Nottage’s 2016 drama about beleaguered factory workers that marked her overdue Broadway debut, and earned her a second Pulitzer Prize.
Suffused with over-the-top coarse language, the Second Stage production is lighter yet no less poignant than Sweat, its sitcom-like pacing belying its gravity. The two plays also share a character: Jason (Edmund Donovan), who’s fresh off a prison stint for turning to violence after losing his factory job in Sweat. The lone white member of Clyde’s crew, he’s covered in racist prison tattoos that he disavows. He eventually bonds with his fellow cooks, the head chef Montrellous (Ron Cephas Jones, This Is Us), Letitia, (Kara Young) a Black single mother with a disabled child and a deadbeat ex, and Rafael, (Reza Salazar) her hyperkinetic suitor who’s trying to avoid a drug relapse. All four actors effectively radiate remorse and contained pain.
Takeshi Kata’s inventive trapezoid-framed commercial kitchen set reflects a world askew, with a small order pass-through also serving as a window into an outside world still beyond these dispossessed workers’ full ken.
Short-order pressure helps keep the staff in a safe state of flow, and workplace antics provide a useful distraction, yet that’s not enough to assuage their personal demons or Clyde’s unrelenting but amusing hostility. When the staff questions the freshness of some foul-smelling Chilean sea bass she brings in, she’s quick to offer up an unapologetic business lesson: “You think guys on Wall Street don’t cut corners? You think Colonel fucking Sanders didn’t fry up a couple of rats to make ends meet?”
But Clyde has a foil in Montrellous, beautifully played by Jones as a Buddha-like figure to her other employees who refuses to be cowed by her mercenary bullying. To him, the kitchen is an atelier where culinary art supersedes commerce, and where good conquers evil. “Cuz you left prison don’t mean you outta prison,” he warns his colleagues, “but, remember everything we do here is to escape that mentality. This kitchen, these ingredients, these are our tools. We have what we need.”
Montrellous’s aphorisms about life, his righteous back-story, and his Zen-like focus on designing the perfect sandwich, inspire the crew, and their eagerness to emulate his inventiveness gives them purpose.
Clyde, unyielding and jaded, sees all this as a waste of time and costly ingredients. “This ain’t Top Chef,” she barks, as she removes a sprig of parsley accessorizing Jason’s latest creation.
Her customers don’t care anyway, she insists, as she waits impatiently for a ham and cheese on white.
Tension in the kitchen climaxes when Montrellous refuses on principle to put relish on a sandwich he says doesn’t need it, forcing his acolytes to either cede to Clyde’s demand themselves, or stand with him in defiance. Though their decision may seem surprising at first, that they’ve been given a choice at all proves their, and Nottage’s, success.