Broadway review by Adam Feldman
[Note: In the final two weeks of its run, through January 16, Clyde's is using multiple cameras to simulcast its in-person performances live to audiences watching at home. Tickets for this livestream are available here.]
“You know why I love the sandwich, ‘cuz it’s a complete meal that you can hold between your fingers,” says Montrellous (Ron Cephas Jones), an ex-convict working as a line cook and unofficial chef de cuisine at Clyde’s, a truck stop in Pennsylvania. “It’s the most democratic of all foods. Two pieces of bread, and between, you can put anything you want. It invites invention and collaboration.” Lynn Nottage has assembled Clyde’s in a similar spirit. It comes as something of a surprise that the playwright behind such heavy works as Intimate Apparel, Sweat and Ruined (the latter two of which earned Pulitzer Prizes) should make her Broadway return with the feel-good play of the season. But from seemingly disparate ingredients—slices of ex-con life, a dash of fresh rom-com, a battle between the forces of good and evil—Nottage and director Kate Whoriskey have crafted a light, delicious medley of sustenance and flavor.
Montrellous and his three kitchen disciples, who are also trying to rebuild their lives after prison, create their sandwiches with extra love and attention that have made the humble Clyde’s a destination for working-class travelers and local foodies alike. In their downtime, they brainstorm fantasy snacks (“Pulled pork, pickled onions, blueberry compote on a soft pretzel roll”) and test workshop versions of them under Monty’s gentle but firm tutelage. He is their panreligious leader, variously referred to as a sensei, a shaman, a priest and “like the Buddha if he’d grown up in the 'hood.” Christopher Akerlind’s lighting and Justin Ellington’s sound design bathe him in holiness; when he emerges from the walk-in fridge, Takeshi Kata’s set briefly renders it as a lush paradise behind him.
If Montrellous is the angel on the shoulders of the ex-cons in food-prep limbo, the devil is in every detail of the joint’s hardened and ruthless owner, Clyde (Uzo Aduba). Herself a former incarceree, Clyde treats her employees like hell because she knows she can get away with it: No one else will hire them. Squeezed voluptuously into a fabulous series of tight, shiny costumes by Jennifer Moeller, she’s like a snake whose curves are the creatures she’s already devoured; the cigarettes she chain-smokes give her proclamations the smoke of a dragon. She has shady connections with underworld investors from “down south,” and no patience for the dreams of the employees she treats as barely a step up from a chain gang. (“Don’t disappoint me by having aspirations,” she tells them.)
Yet the morality play at the core of Clyde’s doesn’t feel preachy—not just because Monty’s saintliness and Clyde’s viciousness are presented with overt winks of theatricality, but also because the performances burst with warm humanity. The special sauce of Whoriskey’s production is its excellent cast. “This kitchen, these ingredients, these are our tools,” says Monty to his charges about rehabilitating themselves through creativity. “We have what we need. So, let’s cook.” And cook they do, bouncing off each other’s rhythms like an expert jazz combo. Jones is a model of soulful grace, and Kara Young and Reza Salazar bring charm and humor to their roles as, respectively, the young mother of a disabled child and a recovering addict with a romantic streak; Edmund Donovan is terrific as a laconic newcomer, tense with guilt and shame, whose racist tattoos testify to a past he can’t escape. (Not since Adam Driver has an actor risen so swiftly through the ranks on the strength of troubled tenderness.) But the wonderful Aduba, in her first starring Broadway role, has the plum part; she cuts through Clyde’s like a serrated knife. The stage is her sandwich, and she slathers it with relish.
Clyde’s. Helen Hayes Theatre (Broadway). By Lynn Nottage. Directed by Kate Whoriskey. With Uzo Aduba, Ron Cephas Jones, Edmund Donovan, Reza Salazar, Kara Young. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.