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Theatre in Review: Clyde's (Second Stage/Helen Hayes Theatre)

Uzo Aduba, Kara Young, Ron Cephas Jones, Edmund Donovan, Reza Salazar. Photo: Joan Marcus

Are we sure Lynn Nottage is only one person? It's not just that she never repeats herself -- she seems to practically reinvent her talent from play to play. Clyde's may not go down as one of her major works, but it certainly doesn't lack for audacity. Startlingly, Nottage takes a situation and characters that other playwrights might have treated as stark drama, playing them for laughs. The play is a slightly fantastic fable spun out of the grimmest circumstance and I can't say it totally works. But it's a bold gamble that, despite a certain structural problem, pays off handsomely in trash talk, crackling tension, and scathing hilarity.

Uzo Aduba is the title character, owner of a truck stop, and the boss from hell -- quite possibly literally so, given the fire effects that pop up whenever she is around. Poured into neon-hued, body-hugging outfits, sporting fingernails honed to sword points, and armed with an array of looks that kill, she ruthlessly rides herd on her kitchen staff. As she tells one of her staffers, "I don't do pity. Because dudes like you thrive on it, it's your energy source, but like fossil fuels it creates pollution." This is empathetic as she gets.

Everyone on staff at Clyde's is an ex-con and a more hapless crew of criminals would be hard to find. Rafael tried knocking off a bank while strung out, menacing the tellers with a BB gun. Letitia robbed a drug store of vital meds for her neurologically challenged daughter, also helping herself to a cache of opioids for resale (a decision that didn't help her in the courtroom). Jason, the new guy, seriously beat up a couple of people who got in his way, an act he is desperate to live down. All three have arrived directly from prison to work for Clyde, a strict disciplinarian when she isn't committing blatant acts of sexual harassment. "Don't they got laws about that kinda thing?" wonders Jason, who doesn't care to be felt up. "You gonna call the police?" asks Clyde. Checkmate.

Indeed, Jason and the others are, basically, indentured servants, and they know it; the situation is exemplified by a wordless, and comically nightmarish, sequence in which Rafael, alone in the kitchen, races around, frantically trying to fulfill food orders as they come pouring in. Here and throughout, Kate Whoriskey's staging is marked by a pinpoint eye for detail and faultless timing. Like Clyde, Whoriskey runs a very tight ship.

The cast makes the most of Nottage's salty dialogue. Clearing up a moment of mistaken identity with Jason, Reza Salazar's Rafael announces, "Do I look like the muthafucking dishwasher? I'm a sous chef, bitch." Jason objects when Kara Young's Letitia, in a typical take-no-prisoners moment, brands him "a hater," causing her to snap, "So, the racist tattoos were just an accident." Jason, who deeply regrets the body ink, is rather more reticent but Edmund Donovan gets a visceral audience reaction with his character's appallingly unsanitary sandwich-making technique.

Clyde, also a former criminal whose problems include big-time gambling debts, has an unexpected antagonist in Montrellous, the kitchen's senior presence, possessed of a Buddhistic detachment that can't help but undermine her reign of terror. Montrellous, who regards sandwich making as an art form and an expression of spirituality, "drops garlic aioli like a realness bomb," notes Letitia. "He makes believers out of even the most jaded vegans," adds Rafael. As played with preternatural calm and a hint of mystery by Ron Cephas Jones, Montrellous effortlessly inspires his colleagues to dream bigger, staging challenge matches in which each aims to invent the ideal sandwich. "You know what they say, cuz you left prison don't mean you outta prison," he says. "But remember, everything we do here is to escape that mentality. This kitchen, these ingredients, these are our tools. We have what we need. So, let's cook."

Such an attitude breeds passive revolution in the ranks, which is where Clyde's gets tricky. The play is unapologetically blunt about an unjust legal system and the stigma of incarceration, but it has also been conceived as a fable of faith and self-empowerment, creating a tension that Nottage never fully resolves. That the action ends on a non-naturalistic note isn't a problem, but, having established a central situation bristling with menace and verbal hit jobs, she rings down the curtain in an abrupt and not entirely satisfactory manner.

Nottage has given us so many brilliant works that she has earned the right to a casual piece or two and Clyde's is staged and performed with such verve that one's objections can be cast aside. The design is particularly attuned to the play's fabulist qualities. The slanted ceiling in Takeshi Kata's otherwise naturalistic set is the first tipoff, followed by the bold color shifts and rectangular lighting blocks provided by Christopher Akerlind. Justin Ellington's amusing sound design includes the ringing of Asian bells whenever Montrellous has a bright idea. Jennifer Moeller's costumes include a show-stopping lineup of looks for Clyde that only add to her larger-than-life aura. Cookie Jordan's hair and wig design includes the attention-getting pink tresses favored by Letitia.

"Don't disappoint me by having aspirations," says Clyde, by way of telling her staff that they can be replaced. But, in Nottage's view, hope will not be denied. At a time when so much of our social discourse is shaped by a grim determinism, it's refreshing to hear Montrellous say, "We ain't bound by our mistakes." The characters in Clyde's are, in a way, still looking to get out of prison and he may hold the keys. It's a bold notion in an imperfect play that, nevertheless is another revelation of Nottage's bountiful talent. --David Barbour

(30 November 2021)

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