The Washington Post

‘Clyde’s’ gives audience a lot to chew on

- BY PETER MARKS IN NEW YORK

With the official opening Tuesday of “Clyde’s,” Lynn Nottage’s highly entertaini­ng comedy of kitchen nightmares at a Pennsylvan­ia truck stop, Broadway’s cup of bracing drama has begun to runneth over.

Already in this era of arts renewal, eight new plays have hit the boards, among them, Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s “Pass Over”; the rotating twin bill of “Is This a Room” and “Dana H.”; Keenan Scott II’S “Thoughts of a Colored Man”; and director Sam Mendes’s “The Lehman Trilogy.”

One could imagine any of these being crowned best play at the next In “Clyde’s,” Uzo Aduba, with Ron Cephas Jones, plays a cafe owner whose cooks are convicts.

Tonys: That’s how deep the 2021-22 field is, and we are only five months into the season that started when “Springstee­n on Broadway” welcomed theatergoe­rs back on June 26. Add to all these the revival, or rather the 66-year delayed Broadway debut, of Alice Childress’s magnificen­t “Trouble in Mind,” in a superb staging by director Charles RandolphWr­ight. And you have a case for a remarkable rollout of Broadway prose.

On this occasion the subject is Nottage and her own remarkable run. The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner is already a Broadway veteran, with the

2017 staging of her prizewinni­ng “Sweat.” Nottage is a playwright of authentic devotion to the stage who never stops repledging her faith; she’s also written the book for the forthcomin­g Michael Jackson jukebox musical, “MJ,” which begins Broadway performanc­es next month. There’s something uniquely exhilarati­ng these days about a career as prolific and engaged as Nottage’s. She’s so theater-centric that she harks back to an older tradition.

In “Clyde’s,” she fuses her storytelli­ng once again to a social issue desperatel­y in need of illuminati­on — this time, the trajectori­es of average people after their release from prison. Set near Reading, Pa., like “Sweat,” which is a tale of the racism arising in a declining union town, “Clyde’s” introduces us to a cafe of last resort. It’s the domain of Uzo Aduba’s Clyde, a glorious creation, an eatery owner of such foul temper she makes culinary martinet Gordon Ramsay seem like a veritable Mr. Rogers.

Aduba, under the intuitivel­y resourcefu­l direction of Kate Whoriskey in this Second Stage production at the Helen Hayes Theatre, has been costumed hilariousl­y in a never-ending series of skintight outfits by designer Jennifer Moeller. You get the impression that every extra penny in the till of this roadside dive is poured into Clyde’s wildly indulgent wardrobe.

The quick-change mechanics mean that each time Aduba pops up at the kitchen’s pass-through window, her appearance evolves — even if her bullying character doesn’t. “Clyde’s” is about the economic vise on the formerly incarcerat­ed, in this case, the diner’s cooks, all of whom are holding on for dear life to their jobs in Clyde’s kitchen. The vivacity of “Clyde’s” springs from the richness of personalit­y with which each of the characters is infused: Kara Young’s spiky Letitia; Reza Salazar’s intense Rafael; Ron Cephas Jones’s meditative Montrellou­s; and Edmund Donovan’s tough-and-soft Jason.

Only tangential­ly, and yet crucially, does “Clyde’s” deal with the circumstan­ces that sent each of them to prison. Rap sheets detail an incident, not a life. Their priorities are the here-and-now in the cafe; survival and aspiration preoccupy them in set designer Takeshi Kata’s flavorful evocation of the kitchen, in which they become obsessed with making the perfect sandwich.

A wonderful distillati­on of that basic necessity of life — purpose in work — comes in an observatio­n by the serenely magnetic Jones about sandwiches. He calls them the “most democratic” of foods, in that pieces of bread can provide the carbohydra­te enclosures for ingredient­s as exotic as one would wish. One cold cut, one vote. You can’t help but feel a pang as the cooks pull out the rolls and whole wheat and muse about filling orders with halloumi cheeses and sprigs of thyme — when all Clyde is demanding are tunas on rye.

What melts away as you get to know the characters are the monumental stigmas attached to jail time. Donovan’s Jason is inked to

the max with prison tats, some of them racist symbols, but the story behind them reveals something unexpected. Letitia, here called Tish, in Young’s smashingly vibrant turn, is all adolescent energy and adult anxiety, the latter brought on as a single mother caring for a sick child. Salazar’s hyper Rafael needs an emotional home for his nurturing instincts, as an alternativ­e to his weakness for drugs.

Aduba, in one of the best roles of her career, swans in and out of the kitchen, her Clyde never letting the employees forget her power over them. She’s their new matron, and they have traded one kind of prison for another. Like the sandwiches they fuss over, though, Nottage wants us to know that their fates remain in their own hands. The fun of

“Clyde’s” is waiting to see which way that realizatio­n cuts.

peter.marks@washpost.com

“Clyde’s” is about the economic vise on the formerly imprisoned, in this case, the diner’s cooks.

Clyde’s, by Lynn Nottage. Directed by Kate Whoriskey. Set, Takeshi Kata; costumes, Jennifer Moeller; lighting, Christophe­r Akerlind; sound, Justin Ellington. About 1 hour 40 minutes. $59-$199. At the Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 W. 44th St., New York. 2st.com.

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 ?? JOAN MARCUS ?? From left, Uzo Aduba, Kara Young, Ron Cephas Jones, Edmund Donovan and Reza Salazar in Lynn Nottage’s “Clyde’s.”
JOAN MARCUS From left, Uzo Aduba, Kara Young, Ron Cephas Jones, Edmund Donovan and Reza Salazar in Lynn Nottage’s “Clyde’s.”

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