In traditional American fashion, a truck stop diner is intended to be a place for temporary respite and sustenance – a break on a highway before continuing towards a destination. But what happens when you mistake the diner as the final destination? Two-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage reflects on this purgatorial conundrum in Clyde’s. The celebrated play makes its Australian premiere at Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre.
Set in a kitchen diner amidst a backdrop of drug abuse, homelessness, poverty and echoes of the prison-industrial complex, the premise revolves around three cooks; their head cook and life guru, Montrellous; and their demanding boss, Clyde. What follows is a Prufrockian reflection on the past, present and future of these characters.
The weight of the performance is carried by Denis, who embodies Clyde’s character like an alter-ego
The play begins with a masterful performance by Nancy Denis, who plays Clyde (portrayed on Broadway by Uzo Aduba of Orange is the New Black fame), and Charles Allen as Montrellous. The pair are wrapping up a conversation, and whilst we are not privy to what Montrellous has revealed, what is established is the stark dichotomy between the hopeless and the hopeful – a tug-o-war which underlies this entire performance – all whilst making a grilled cheese sandwich.
In a performance which is laden with sombre themes, Nottage’s characters navigate the world with humour, and her sharp and entertaining dialogue cuts the heaviness. The zinger lines and food humour leave you laughing out loud, whilst also humanising the tragedies of each character. There are some scenes which, if performed with the wrong actor, have the potential to become patronizing; however Allen has an innate ability to metamorphosise such lines into humble spiritual reflections which bring solace to Montrellous’s proteges.
The weight of the performance is carried by Denis, who embodies Clyde’s character like an alter-ego. Every movement and syllable is perfectly executed, exuding cruelty and crassness which leaves no room for empathy towards our antagonist. From the stomping of her boots to her provocative jabs and her stares of contempt for her staff, Denis’ performance commands both the kitchen and the audience. When Denis is not on stage, you find yourself eagerly awaiting for her to return to add the missing dimension back into the play.
Much like the sandwiches they make, the three cooks (played by Gabriel Alvarado, Aaron Tsindos and Ebony Vagulans) lack flavour and spice. It is hard to empathise with Letitia’s anger (played by Vagulans) against Jason (Tsindos), which appears wildly disproportionate and unclear from the outset of the performance. The three performers struggle to hold the space without either Allen or Denis to bounce off. There is a homogeneity to their performances which removes the value of each character and their individual storyline. However, by the second half of the performance, all three actors begin to take ownership of their characters, evoking the tension and motivations reflective of their plight.
The bold and pastel colouring which is quintessentially correlated with an American diner is stripped away in lieu of a discoloured kitchen. The creative decision of Simone Romaniuk's comparatively drab workspace allows for lighting designer Morgan Moroney to manipulate the lighting, bringing the characters’ state of mind into focus. This culminates perfectly in a scene where cook Rafael (Gabriel Alvarado) frantically runs around cooking orders whilst Clyde manically, if not almost demonically, pops her head out the order window demanding more and more under a lighting of the reddest of red hues. Purgatory can very easily become synonymous with hell, but as Clyde’s can testify, it can also become the motivation to seek paradise.
Clyde’s provides a fascinating picture into the drudgery of the working class through the confines of a kitchen diner. Through the simple process of sandwich making, the performance captures the intricate complexity of choice. Whilst introspective, however, this story is longing for more meaningful tension and a climax to really drive it home. But if it doesn’t leave you contemplating, it will definitely have you laughing until the very end.
Clyde’s is playing at Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli, until June 10. Tickets range from $38-$75 and you can snap them up over here.