We are living in Greek times — or so you might conclude from the preponderance of Greek tragedies turned out by today’s playwrights. The world they show us is too dark for anything but the cruelest of tales, the bleakest of forms.
And no wonder. The systems that control our lives — institutional racism, predatory capitalism, the prison-industrial complex — seem as powerful and implacable as gods. What can humans do about fate, these playwrights suggest, but submit to it and hope to preserve the story?
Lynn Nottage has sometimes been one of them. Her two Pulitzer Prizes are for works in which the world and its people are trapped in an abusive relationship. In “Ruined,” women prove to be the real targets in the Congolese civil war. In “Sweat,” steelworkers resisting their union-busting management inexorably wind up busting one another.
But Nottage’s delightful new play, “Clyde’s,” which opened at the Helen Hayes Theater on Tuesday, dares to flip the paradigm. Though it’s still about dark things, including prison, drugs, homelessness and poverty, it somehow turns them into bright comedy. In Kate Whoriskey’s brisk and thoroughly satisfying production for Second Stage Theater, we learn that, unlike Oedipus and his mom, people who may have little else nevertheless have choices.
Which is not to say the choices are easy. In the kitchen of the truck stop diner that gives the play its title, the cooks making the sandwiches have all served time. Letitia (Kara Young) “got greedy” and stole “some oxy and addy to sell on the side” after breaking into a pharmacy to obtain “seizure medication” for her daughter. Rafael (Reza Salazar) held up a bank but (a) with a BB gun, and (b) only because he wanted to buy his girlfriend a Cavalier King Charles spaniel. We don’t at first get the story of how Montrellous (Ron Cephas Jones) wound up behind bars, but he is so saintly that Letitia, called Tish, believes it must have been elective.
In any case, like the others, he has paid the price, and keeps paying it. As the joint’s proprietor, Clyde (Uzo Aduba), enjoys pointing out, she’s the only employer in Reading, Penn., who will hire “morons” like them. She does so not because she too was once incarcerated; don’t accuse her of a soft heart. (Of the crime that landed her in prison the only thing she says is that the last man who tried to hurt her “isn’t around to try again, I made damn sure of that.”) Rather, Clyde has shady reasons to keep the overhead low and the morale even lower.
In Aduba’s hilarious and scalding performance, Clyde, wearing a succession of skintight don’t-mess-with-me outfits by Jennifer Moeller, is a shape-shifting hellhound, all but breathing fire. (The pyrotechnics are by J&M Special Effects.) Though “not indifferent to suffering,” she tells Montrellous, she doesn’t “do pity,” which is an understatement. Popping up like a demon in a small window between the front and the back of the restaurant, she roars orders and insults; when she emerges, in full glory, among her minions, it is only to exert her fearful, foul-mouthed dominance.
Into this uncomfortable equilibrium comes Jason (Edmund Donovan), recently out of prison and covered with white supremacist tattoos. (The other characters, in this production, are Black and Latino.) At first it seems that Jason’s integration into the kitchen will form the story’s spine: Tish quickly warns him that she knows all about “breaking wild white horses.” But it turns out to be less of a spine than a rib. Despite his tats and defenses, Jason is a puppy, fully domesticated before the play is half over.
This conception of Jason worried me at first. People who have seen “Sweat” will recognize him as one of the perpetrators of a heinous attack on a Colombian American busboy at the climax of that play, also set in Reading. (Another character suffers a traumatic brain injury in the process.) If Nottage’s aim was to keep “Clyde’s” a comedy, even one about redemption, Jason had to be rebuilt; in the writing though not the performance — Donovan faultlessly negotiates the contradictions — the seams sometimes show.
Even if you don’t know “Sweat,” though, “Clyde’s” may slightly cloy. The three other cooks, with their softball crimes, begin to seem a pinch too adorable. Tish, in Young’s superb performance, is a smart, sharp, heavily defended kitten; Rafael, a huggable romantic; Montrellous, an impeccably kind sage — “like a Buddha,” Rafael says, “if he’d grown up in the hood.” Jones fulfills that description perfectly, correcting for the character’s Zen imperturbability with subtle dashes of pain and sacrifice.
Still, where’s the action? Another underdeveloped plotline explores the possibility of the diner becoming a destination restaurant. In yet another, a pro forma (but totally heartwarming) romance buds between two of the characters. And the series of fantastical sandwiches Montrellous creates, inspiring the others to make their own as a way of dreaming big, threatens to convert from a leitmotif into an annoyance when it is forced to bear too much meaning.
Yet in “Clyde’s,” Nottage does something shrewd with the obvious underlinings that can sometimes make her meticulously researched plays feel didactic. By putting them into a character whose goal is in fact to educate, and by blowing them up into amusing overstatements, she keeps the play itself from becoming gassy. When Montrellous says that sandwiches like his grilled halloumi on home-baked herb focaccia are “the most democratic of all foods” — or that “this sandwich is my freedom” — we see something about his personality, not just the playwright waving semaphore flags.
It also helps that Takeshi Kata’s cleverly expanding set, lit for comedy by Christopher Akerlind, allows Whoriskey to hit the ground running and barely pause for 95 minutes. She leans beautifully into the sweetness of the cooks but also, bending the other way, into the sourness of Clyde, for whom Nottage has written great zingers. When Rafael complains about the rotting Chilean sea bass she expects him to cook, she responds, approximately, “You think Colonel Sanders didn’t fry up a couple of rats to make ends meet?”
Playwrights sometimes do the same. In this case the shortcuts were totally worth it; that “Clyde’s” is a comedy does not mean it doesn’t have tragedy baked in. (It was originally called “Floyd’s” — until George Floyd was murdered.) Though it ultimately rejects the Greek model, it is still about gods and mortals. What is Clyde but a greasy-spoon Satan, the diabolical voice seductively whispering “Don’t get too high on hope” to people trying to escape their past?
Still, the cooks are in purgatory, not hell. They are not merely victims of fate; they can use their moral imagination to resist the Clydes of this world. That they discover the power of that imagination in the most unlikely way, by making food, is what makes the play funny. The point would be much the same, though, if it weren’t: Sometimes, there’s a good reason you can’t stand the heat. When that happens, get out of the kitchen!
Through Jan. 16 at the Helen Hayes Theater, Manhattan; 2st.com. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes.
Apsny News English