Review: Lynn Nottage's Clyde's and the Sandwich Shop on the Road to Redemption
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Ruined and Sweat pens a comedy about formerly incarcerated people.
Flames rise from the stage of the Helen Hayes Theater in the Broadway debut of Lynn Nottage's Clyde's. Appearing without warning, they threaten to incinerate anyone who happens to take a wrong step. They are the visual manifestation of the walk across hot coals performed every day by the characters in this unlikely comedy, which is made even more delightful by the heartfelt performances of an all-star cast.
The story takes place in the kitchen of Clyde's, a roadside sandwich stop frequented by hungry truckers making the long journey across Pennsylvania. The kitchen is staffed exclusively by formerly incarcerated individuals like spunky single mom Letitia (Kara Young) and skittish romantic Rafael (Reza Salazar). Both greet Jason (Edmund Donovan), a new hire covered in white-power tattoos, with suspicion. "I give 'em two weeks," Letitia says directly to him, speculating how long it will be before he lands back in prison.
Under the tutelage of elder statesman Montrellous (an avuncular Ron Cephas Jones), all three become obsessed with creating the perfect sandwich. "I can taste your impatience," he tells Letitia after biting into her latest creation, sounding very much like a Jedi master admonishing his padawan.
That makes Clyde, the shop's namesake proprietress, Darth Vader — and Uzo Aduba portrays her with an intensity that is just as likely to echo through your dreams as the resonant voice of James Earl Jones. Menacing, cruel, and vaguely enchanted, she rules her joint with an iron fist, unwilling to let anyone undermine the business she created following her own stint in prison. She may have given her employees their first jobs on the outside, but she almost dares them to screw up. Allergic to joy, she is the boss from hell.
This play about recently incarcerated people attempting to stabilize their lives qualifies as a lighthearted comedy from Nottage, the playwright who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for Ruined (about women in war-torn Congo) and another one in 2017 for Sweat (about the havoc wreaked by deindustrialization). A combination of witty dialogue, outsize characters, and zany staging from director Kate Whoriskey creates a madcap world that keeps us laughing while addressing real-world problems with seriousness and sophistication.
Once again, Nottage shows her sensitivity for the gravitational pull of class in America, a force that the formerly imprisoned experience like the unlucky subjects of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Once incarcerated, it is far easier to land back in prison than it is to find a decent job and stay out of trouble: Hiring practices, with their built-in discrimination against anyone with a criminal record, practically guarantee it. The people in Clyde's kitchen are lucky to even have a job, and the boss surely knows this when she casually threatens to call Jason's parole officer and file a false claim of sexual harassment...right before laughing at her own joke. She is the demon poking them in the ass, ready to drag them down. She is also not that different from the vast bulk of service employers, who rely on desperation to retain an underpaid workforce.
Clyde's isn't perfect: Nottage reveals the backstories of the four sandwich-makers in labored succession, and a confusing (but possibly profound?) conclusion feels like the ending one settles for when the clock runs out. Whoriskey gussies it up with a striking final image that wouldn't look out of place in a sassy new Arby's commercial. It is bound to leave plenty of people scratching their heads as they file out onto 44th Street.
Fortunately, everyone in the cast is giving fleshy, layered performances that not only make us laugh at the eccentricities of these characters, but make us like them (OK, so it's pretty hard to like Clyde, but Aduba is damn funny). Tiny yet pugnacious, Young conveys the bravery with which Letitia faces down a world designed to see her fail. She and Salazar maintain an electric current of attraction between their two characters, which is made even more plausible by Salazar's charming goofiness. Donavan manages to deliver both the hardest and tenderest performance in the show, slowly removing Jason's emotional armor over the course of 100 minutes.
Whoriskey's production is top-shelf at every turn, with Takeshi Kata's overstuffed yet tidy kitchen set acting as a funhouse from which all manner of magic springs. Costume designer Jennifer Moeller adorns Aduba in velvet and vinyl, keeping her busy with quick changes so that each appearance is more outrageous than the last. Christopher Akerlind's lighting and Justin Ellington's sound work together to create the little magical moments that lift Clyde's into an alternate realm, before sending it crashing back to reality.
And that reality is bleak, especially for the formerly imprisoned. It may not seem immediately apparent what sandwich-making has to do with their lives, but I have often found that when circumstances feel out of your control, it can mean a lot to do just one thing in your day really well. I suspect this is why so many furloughed office workers took up bread-making during the worst months of the pandemic. In their quest for the nirvana of the perfect sandwich, the characters of Clyde's show us the resilience of the human spirit under difficult odds — and the potential for a community to form out of seemingly irreconcilable individuals. That's a story we all ought to take seriously right now.