Clyde’s shows off the sunnier side of Sweat

Let’s get this out of the way immediately: any similarities between Lynn Nottage’s Clyde’s, now in its local premiere at the Goodman, and the Hulu series The Bear are purely coincidental. (Honestly? Though I’ve read several essays about it, I haven’t watched the latter yet. I know!) Yes, they are both set in the kitchen of a sandwich restaurant, where tempers flare as pressure mounts. But Nottage’s play, which had its world premiere in New York in 2021 and earned five Tony Award nominations, is a sequel of sorts to her Pulitzer Prize-winning Rust Belt drama Sweat (seen at the Goodman in 2019). 

Yet the world of Clyde’s, the truck-stop cafe run by the eponymous tough-as-nails proprietress, is in a different tonal universe than Nottage’s earlier play. Which is just a fancy way of saying, “It’s a comedy!”

Clyde’s Through 10/9: Wed 7:30 PM, Thu 2 and 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM; also Sun 9/25 and Tue 10/4 7:30 PM; ASL interpretation Fri 10/7 8 PM, Spanish subtitles Sat 10/8 8 PM, open captions Sun 10/9 2 PM; Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, 312-443-3800, goodmantheatre.org, $25-$80

As Nottage told me in an interview last spring when Sweat was in a revival at Aurora’s Paramount Theatre, “It’s very much in conversation with Sweat, but it’s an entirely different work, and you don’t need to have familiarity with Sweat to be able to enjoy Clyde’s. It’s set in a sandwich shop on a not-so-traveled stretch of road just outside of Reading. And I describe it as a liminal space. It’s a space that you only find if you’re taking a detour.”

The detours for Clyde’s employees involved stretches of incarceration, and the most direct link to Sweat is that Jason (Garrett Young), the newest member of the kitchen crew, has just been released from prison for a near-fatal assault that formed the dramatic climax for the earlier play. He’s covered with white-power tats that he claims he got only as a survival measure while in lockup. (His walking-health-department-violation habit of wiping his nose as he prepares food is thus only the second-most-disturbing thing about him.)

But Jason, like everyone else sweating it out under Clyde’s watchful eye, wants to do better. And Montrellous (Kevin Kenerly), the “sandwich sensei” whose creations are far above standard truck-stop fare, wants that for everyone. He serves up garnishes of hard-won wisdom alongside the produce from the garden he’s growing out back. “And you know what they say, cuz you left prison don’t mean you outta prison. 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.”

And he’d love to help Clyde blossom, too—but as she tells him from the first scene, “I’m not indifferent to suffering. But I don’t do pity. I just don’t. And you know why? Because dudes like you thrive on it, it’s your energy source, but like fossil fuels it creates pollution.”

Clyde herself is a former convict, but she’s not hiring paroled folks out of altruism. Instead, she knows that workers who don’t have many options aren’t likely to cause problems for management. As played by the magnificent understudy Danielle Davis at Monday’s opening (stepping in for De’Adre Aziza), she’s monstrously and hilariously blunt, routinely pouring out generous portions of sharp sour don’t-give-a-damn sauce to counter the nurturing savory warmth offered up by Kenerly’s Montrellous. 

As directed by longtime Nottage collaborator Kate Whoriskey, this show is a palate-cleansing look at the working class that doesn’t treat them purely as victims or helpless cogs in the wheel. In doing so, it trades high-stakes plot development in favor of slice-of-life character study. A glowing review in a local paper seems to offer some Mystic Pizza possibilities for Clyde’s to go upscale, but that notion is shot down by the lady who owns the place (and apparently owes money to some rather dangerous types that we never meet). 

So instead we spend time getting to know more about the people who labor under Clyde’s histrionic demands. In addition to Montrellous and Jason, there’s Letitia (Nedra Snipes), whose problems with finding reliable childcare for her disabled daughter offer a poignant snapshot of how juggling work and family means something entirely different when you’re a paycheck away from disaster, rather than stressing over finding the perfect live-in nanny. There’s also Rafael (Reza Salazar), who carries a torch for Letitia and a desire to match Montrellous’s culinary skills. “I’m the sous chef, bitch!” he yells at Jason early on, and it’s clear it’s not really Jason he’s trying to convince of his worth, but himself. 

The road that runs through Clyde’s has obviously been a harsh one. But the kitchen quartet finds sustenance in each other, even through their arguments and reminders of their troubled pasts. No matter how much their boss tries to shit on their dreams, there’s quiet beauty in the way they learn to work together and listen to each other. Clyde’s version of perseverance is rooted in going it alone and stomping out anyone she suspects will drag her down. (In this way, she’s not unlike Mama Nadi, the harsh Congolese madam and bar owner in Nottage’s other Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Ruined.) The beauty of Nottage’s world, which she’s shown us in so many plays both comic and tragic over the years, is that it refuses cheap cynicism and nihilism. We’re all we’ve got on the road to nowhere. Let’s make the best of it. And as Warren Zevon once said, “Enjoy every sandwich.”

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