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Review | ‘Clyde’s’ is a feel-good work that optimistically preaches a path to self-redemption

The Devil comes in the unlikely form of Uzo Aduba (who won three Emmy Awards as “Crazy Eyes” on the Netflix prison series “Orange is the New Black”) in “Clyde’s,” a heartfelt workplace comedy by two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, which is receiving its New York premiere on Broadway in a nonprofit production by Second Stage.

It is especially appropriate for a new play by Lynn Nottage (“Sweat,” “Ruined”)  to be a part of this fall’s extraordinary wave of new plays by Black writers on Broadway since she is one of the country’s most acclaimed and widely-produced playwrights. (It is also worth noting that an operatic adaptation of Nottage’s 2004 drama “Intimate Apparel,” which was in previews Off-Broadway at the time of the shutdown, will resume performances in January.) 

Although grounded in difficult economic and social realities, “Clyde’s” is an unusually lighthearted work for Nottage, whose recent plays have delved into sexual oppression and civil war (“Ruined”), animal cruelty and global corruption (“Mlima’s Tale”), and the loss of manufacturing jobs and drug addiction (“Sweat”).

Aduba plays Clyde, the sassy, stylish, and mercilessly terrorizing proprietor of a roadside sandwich shop operated by ex-cons, who do their best to abide to by Clyde’s constant harassment and belittlement, fully aware that they are unlikely to find anyone else who is willing to hire them and that the loss of their jobs could lead to being reincarcerated. 

Set in the shop’s gritty industrial kitchen, Clyde’s newest and youngest employees include Letitia (Kara Young), who stole seizure medication (for her daughter) and opioids (for herself) from a pharmacy; Rafael (Reza Salavar), who got high and tried to rob a bank with a GG gun in order to buy his girlfriend a gift; and Jason (Edmund Donovan), who got drunk and assaulted a nonunion worker after getting locked out of his factory job, and who now feels the shame of having white supremacist tattoos all over his face.

The older and mysterious Montrellous (Ron Cephas Jones) encourages his colleagues to move past their pain and anger by preparing sandwiches with the utmost care and integrity. After eventually converting to Montrellous’ point of view, they debate proper sandwich ingredients, refuse to add relish to a particular dish, and even obtain a rave review from a local newspaper. 

The antagonistic relationship between the high-minded Montrellous and the no-nonsense Clyde feels a lot like the warring between Cervantes and the Duke in the musical “Man of La Mancha.” Towards the end, I kept expecting the sandwich shop staff to break out into a dreamy-eyed rendition of “The Impossible Dream.”

Abuda (who seems to always materialize in a flashy new wardrobe and wig) takes her performance to a gleefully ridiculous, fully physical, diva-like extreme, which contrasts nicely with the tranquil Jones, tenderhearted Young, innocently romantic Salavar, and downbeat Donovan.

Director Kate Whoriskey (who regularly collaborates with Nottage) may have overemphasized the play’s broad humor, to the point where it often starts to resemble a sitcom version of “Top Chef.” But at its best, “Clyde’s” is a relatable, rambunctious, feel-good work that optimistically preaches a path to self-redemption.

For those unable to attend in person, Second Stage announced this week that it will make live simulcasts of the show, edited live using seven cameras, available for streaming in January during the last two weeks of the Broadway run. This marks a significant development in the integration of streaming into the infrastructure of post-pandemic Broadway. 

Hayes Theater, 240 W. 44th St., 2st.com. Through Jan. 16.

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