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Arden Theatre Company presents Lynn Nottage’s Clyde’s
In Clyde’s, the kitchen-set comedy now onstage at Arden Theatre, the road to hell is paved with delicious sandwiches. The formerly incarcerated staff who man the grills and shred the lettuce in a rundown truck-stop luncheonette rhapsodize endlessly about the possibilities of pleasure encased between two slices of bread.
According to Montrellous (Walter DeShields), the wise and relentlessly positive leader of the group, it represents “the most democratic of all food.”
A word to the wise: don’t show up hungry. By the end of this briskly paced one-act, I found myself salivating over the multiple combinations proposed for the menu, all of which go far beyond the usual diner fare. Skirt steak with Swiss chard? Sign me up. Fancy grilled cheese on homemade focaccia? You had me at halloumi.
A rich dramatic menu
But even if you come to Clyde’s on an empty stomach, you’re bound to leave well fed. Playwright Lynn Nottage engages in rich portraiture, charting the highs and lows of the denizens of this last-chance café with sympathy and wit. The Arden’s fine production, directed by Malika Oyetimein, brings their personalities to vivid life.
In addition to Montrellous, we meet Letitia (Kishia Nixon), who struggles to get her life on track and raise her medically fragile daughter, and Rafael (J. Hernandez), who turned himself around after a struggle with opioid use disorder. Jason (Brian Cowden) stands out for his laconic demeanor and prison-gang tattoos, but as Nottage peels away his layers, we discover his quiet humanity.
They all exist under the thumb of the title character (Tiffany Barrett), a ruthless businesswoman who exploits the lack of options faced by individuals re-entering society after a prison sentence. (We learn that she herself is a former felon.) Where Montrellous is sunshine and Zen, Clyde is a perennial hurricane, destroying the dreams of whoever finds themselves in her path.
The meat of the story
Unlike her plays Ruined and Sweat—both of which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama—Nottage does not seem especially interested here in making a grand statement on the prison industrial complex or the plight of minimum wage workers. Any messaging is embedded within her characters, who work hard to overcome the obstacles that society puts in their path. Most of all, she appears invested in finding the humor beneath the hardship.
This is not to say that certain moments don’t tug the heartstrings. Montrellous offers a wrenching monologue explaining the circumstances that put him behind bars, which DeShields delivers with a chillingly calm aura. Similarly, Cowden’s Jason, a former steel worker, recounts how the pressures of destabilization in the manufacturing industry led him to make unfathomable choices in his life. (Those who’ve seen Nottage’s Sweat will recognize him as a character from that play.)
But the real meat of the story comes from the crackling interactions between Montrellous and Clyde, who go together like oil and water. Here, the production falters slightly. While DeShields has Montrellous’s cool-customer act down to a science, Barrett’s Clyde lacks enough gravitas to be truly imposing. She looks the part of a boss-from-hell in Ilycia Buffaloe’s cavalcade of flashy costumes, but ultimately, the bickering comes across like a brother and sister, without the necessary edge.
The brilliance of a good sandwich
Other elements compensate. Kyu Shin’s hyper-realist set, with industrial-sized jars of mustard and mayonnaise hugging the proscenium, situates the audience in a hot, sweaty kitchen where one day bleeds into the next. Sound designer Stephon Dorsey creates the convincing sizzle of burger patties and french fries boiling in hot oil. And Nixon, wonderful in past productions from EgoPo Classic Theater and Lantern Theater Company, gives a breakout performance as the brash but caring Letitia.
According to American Theatre magazine, Clyde’s is currently the most produced play in the United States, with at least 11 regional productions planned between September 2022 and June 2023. It’s easy to understand why. Like a brilliantly composed sandwich, Nottage brings together disparate ingredients with harmony and balance, drawing humor from adversity and triumph from sadness. It’s worth taking a bite.
What, When, Where
Clyde’s. By Lynn Nottage, directed by Malika Oyetimein. Through March 12, 2023, at Arden Theatre Company, 40 N 2nd Street, Philadelphia. $31-$61. (215) 922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.
Masks are optional.
Arden Theatre is a wheelchair-accessible venue. An elevator is available to the theater space, which is on the second floor. There will be open-captioned and audio-described performances on Friday, February 24, at 8pm and Saturday, February 25, at 2pm.
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