In Clyde’s, Lynn Nottage’s thoroughly entertaining new Broadway play directed by longtime collaborator Kate Whoriskey, three ex-cons who work at the eponymous diner for the titular boss are in a struggle of their souls. They are fighting for dignity, a sense of self-worth, hope and the secret to the perfect sandwich. The two main combatants here are Clyde—played by Uzo Aduba as the boss from hell—and Montrellous—played by Ron Cephus Jones an ex-convict who works at the diner, but who has dreams and aspirations that this kitchen’s menu can not satisfy.
Aduba is a marvel to watch as she holds back nothing in her portrayal of Clyde, relishing—pardon the pun—the control she exerts over her staff as well as her every fashion disaster. If Clyde is the boss from hell—and she really is—for her every employee this is the job from hell, with flames thrown in to underscore the fact. These four are stuck here, fresh out of prison and with almost no options, and Clyde has her feet and very high heels firmly planted on their necks. For these costumes, designer Jennifer Moeller could get a Tony nomination and a moving violation from the fashion police.
Matching her every step of the way is Ron Cephas Jones, who is mesmerizing as Montrellous. Jones has charm to spare and can say so much a whisper and a look. In this kitchen, Monty is a messenger from God and an evangelist for the perfect sandwich. He elevates sandwich making to an art with just a pinch of Eastern religion. With every new sandwich recipe, he shows his co-workers a new path to meaning in their soul-sucking jobs and perhaps an escape from them. The truth may or may not set them free, but a touch of spice, a well-placed garnish and a little piece of their hearts will.
The opening scene tells, so much so compactly: Monty tries to sell Clyde on a sandwich creation of his that would send the audience to a four-star restaurant. Smoking a cigarette—in front of a no smoking sign—she turns him down. She’s not interested. Her tastes are as low-rent as his are high-. This is also a place where rules are meant to be broken—at least by her—and this is a depressing place to work.
Clyde is on one level a cartoon. She is every bad boss we’ve ever had, larger than life and twice as scary. But because she is written by Nottage, she is fleshed out and three dimensional. In fact one might need another dimension for her. She could just be the devil, but we see she is damaged goods and determined to exact some redress—unfortunately from the wrong people. As she is portrayed by Aduba, she all too human—that is if by human we mean greedy, self-serving, demeaning and nasty.
The staff inspired by Monty is on a quest—to make the perfect sandwich. Monty is a gentle but tough critic. It’s not only about the product and its ingredients. Sandwiches are as much about the person as what they bring to those ingredients. Sandwiches are art, and he is their van Gogh. When he is in the zone, he can put Clyde’s worst behaviors out his mind.
Letitia, played by Kara Young who is making her Broadway debut, says if Clyde was a man one wouldn’t think twice about her behavior. I am not so sure about that. It’s a convenient excuse. Bad bosses come in all shapes and genders. But Tish is young and angry and her attacks are not always well-aimed. And Young shows that if Tish does not have a heart of gold, she does have a heart, a pulse and a head on her shoulders.
Reza Salazar’s Rafael hides his vulnerability behind a lot of anger. But he also seems the most open to being loved and being hurt. Salazar changes in mood are swift and deft.
Edmund Donovan as Jason, the newcomer to hell’s kitchen, has his guard up at first. This is a just a purgatory for him, a waystation on the way God knows where. But he quickly is ready to grasp at what straws and slaws come his way; he’ll even listen to Monty and try his hand at a heartfelt sandwich.
If Clyde is not the devil incarnate, she is certainly one of his most loyal lieutenants. She seems to have sold her soul to Satan one condiment at a time, uncompromising in her devotion to making her employees’ lives a living hell. Satan, it seems, got taken in that transaction.
Clyde’s could easily have been a parable, complete with a good angel and a bad angel and a tidy little moral, but it is much more than that. It is peopled with real people, not symbols. It should really appeal to anyone who has had a bad job and/or a bad boss, that is, earthlings.
And Clyde’s speaks to the great resignation, where people are quitting awful jobs with awful bosses in droves. People want careers, not jobs. And if they only have jobs, they prefer an atmosphere that is not poisonous. Clyde’s captures people’s need to be valued as contributors not cogs in a machine.
And in the end, Tish, Jason and Rafael do have a Stone Soup moment when they contribute something of themselves to a greater good, and at that time, they give Clyde’s, themselves and Clyde’s a measure of welcome hope.
Clyde’s is playing at the Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street, New York through January 16. Masks must be worn in the theater, and proof of vaccination and photo ID must be shown at the door. For tickets and more information go to 2st.com/Shows/Clydes.
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