Patrick Stewart preparing and eating a ham sandwich while soliloquizing during a 2008 production of Macbeth is one of my favorite theatregoing memories. In this tradition of “sandwich theatre” comes Clyde’s, in which several are fixed and few eaten, though there’s other stuff to nosh.
A synopsis of the play, the latest from two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage, suggests a pressure cooker of an evening. Clyde’s is a truck stop somewhere in Pennsylvania, staffed by former prisoners. Clyde herself is an 18-wheeler of a personality, lording it over her staff with endless commands and snappish remarks like “don’t disappoint me by having aspirations.” With few other options given their bottom-of-the-barrel status her employees take whatever abuse Clyde dishes out, reducing themselves to indentured servitude. But Montrellous, the wisest (and most wizened) of the crew, stymies her by not just being good but inspired at his job, painstakingly crafting superior sandwiches that attract customers but also slow down and thwart her assembly line.
We expect fireworks. And we get fire–Clyde’s sudden appearances in the kitchen, encased in outlandish skin-hugging outfits, are sometimes accompanied by bursts of satanic flames. For Clyde’s, unlike Ruined, Sweat, or Intimate Apparel, the plays that loom largest for me in Nottage’s oeuvre, is a comedy, albeit one about serious matters. Her plays don’t lack humor–the Hollywood shuffle piece By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is quite funny at times–but here it’s front-and-centered, with wayward results. Clad in Jennifer Moeller’s attention-getting costumes Emmy winner Uzo Aduba (Orange is the New Black) is quite the spectacle as Clyde, throwing shade, oozing contempt, and sexually harassing one of her employees, simply because she can, without consequences. Clyde was also incarcerated, but having moved up the ladder and blown through barriers of racism and sexism to get there she’s not about to grow a conscience. Aduba’s literal “boss from hell” is a formidable presence…but not a terribly dimensional one, in what plays as a cockeyed comic myth set in “a liminal space.”
When not being terrorized by their boss the lackeys reveal themselves, to each other (in comical scenes of scrambling around Takeshi Kata’s greasy spoon set) and to the audience, in monologues about their broken hearts and dreams. Letitia (Kara Young), Rafael (Reza Salazar), and Jason (Edmund Donovan), who’s wreathed in white supremacist tattoos, have affecting moments amidst a lot of business–Letitia and Rafael are fumbling toward connection, and Jason is more bark than bite when confronted by his new colleagues. Their plights would be the meat of a different Nottage play, but here they’re just dressing. Emerging as less of a caricature is Montrellous, played by the great Ron Cephas Jones. A Zen master of garlic aioli and other ingredients not associated with the grilled cheeses Clyde prefers he keeps his cool around her while quietly exhorting his younger charges to assemble better ingredients for themselves, in their culinary explorations and their lives outside the restaurant.
Director Kate Whoriskey, Nottage’s longtime collaborator, keeps the the show on a low flame, without raising the temperature to foodie comedy or carceral drama. As a result Clyde’s fails to mix both ingredients and congeals over time, never catching fire despite the onstage pyrokinetics. I liked the final image, which may or may not suggest a method to Clyde’s madness. But the overall effect is one of frustration, that one of our great playwrights is working something out in a liminal space of her own while withholding what it is, and leaving little for us to chew on.