Fast-paced and uproariously funny, “Clyde’s” is a spicy feast for the senses.
Lynn Nottage’s latest work, now playing at the Goodman Theatre, follows a modest yet popular truck-stop diner run by a colorful staff of formerly incarcerated folks and their practically demonic boss and restaurant namesake, Clyde.
As Clyde, understudy Danielle Davis (De’Adre Aziza who was originally cast in the role is out for an indeterminate length of time) is wickedly delightful as the hell-on-wheels employer who runs her kitchen like a warden at the penitentiary from which they’ve all been freed. Davis is a hoot to watch, gleefully striding from one end of the stage to the other, chewing up the scenery (and her employee’s backsides) with impunity.
For the formerly incarcerated, the reach of the prison walls extend far beyond one’s release date, a theme echoed in every element of the story. It’s incredibly difficult for people with a record to find meaningful employment, which makes a crappy job slinging sandwiches a welcome lifeline.
One of the kitchen staff, the mouthy and tender-hearted Letitia (played by a dazzlingly charismatic and funny Nedra Snipes) says “You have to fight to protect your freedom” — haunted by how easy it would be to backslide and end up in jail once again. After all, there are parole officers to answer to, bills to pay, children to feed, sobriety to maintain — and gainful employment underpins the success of all of those goals. These are the sobering realities of life after incarceration and recidivism is a more likely outcome than success. Unfortunately, Clyde is the kind of boss that any employee would be justified in walking out on mid-shift, placing her desperate staff in one hot pickle.
While many might approach a story of ex-convicts searching for redemption with the traditional recipe of sorrow, angst and grit, Nottage serves up a heaping helping of comedy. The engine of this story is hope, not heartbreak. Director Katie Whoriskey’s comedic timing is impeccable, consistently delivering back-to-back belly laughs throughout the play.
Armed with a sandwich and a dream, Letitia and her co-workers strive to stay on the straight and narrow, but begin to realize that the soul needs food just as much as the flesh, and yearn for more. Working alongside Letitia is the sprightly hilarious Rena Salazar playing Rafael, an amorous sous chef successfully turning his life around, and a casually comedic Garett Young plays Jason, a young man whose ink guarantees a life sentence despite his release.
Leading up this merry band of dreamers is the sandwich guru Montrellous, a mysterious older chef with a firm grasp of the gourmet (which may lend the play comparison to the hit TV show The Bear) and a dream of broadening their customer base from truckers to hipsters. Serving as a father figure and Hood Guru to the impetuous youngsters, he shares the gospel of the mindfulness of the mundane – wrestling with inner demons by finding peace in daily tasks like preparing a sandwich. Lighting Designer Christopher Akerlind’s considerable talents are on display, elevating their indulgent moments of culinary creativity to the sublime.
Just as the staff begins to flourish, Clyde spins in like a hurricane, crushing their dreams like so many eggs. A cantilever to the optimism of Montrellous, Clyde serves a bitter tablespoon of reality, stating “This world is mean, i’m just in it.” As Clyde wreaks havoc on the lives of her staff wearing her truly outstanding nightclub-meets-prison warden wardrobe choices (truly immaculate work by costume designer Jennifer Moeller), we learn that the entire world is Clyde’s prison, and for better or for worse, her tiny kitchen is the only place where she can guarantee full control. This unrepentant and deeply flawed female character will make you feel guilty for delighting in the hilarious terror she causes her poor employees.
Of course, any show with a pyrotechnician on staff is guaranteed to be a great time (excellent work by Black Circle Creative) and this play is totally lit. Nottage’s scrumptious descriptions of mouth-watering sandwiches will make your taste buds salivate and your stomach grumble in anticipation. Some entrepreneurial food truck owner would be wise to park across the street as the show lets out!
The characters that Nottage creates are vivid and just as enticing as the food, making you want to follow their stories when they leave the stage. This show is raucous, bawdy and full of surprises. If there’s any downside, it’s that the eminently delicious “Clyde’s” will leave you ravenously hungry for more!