What goes into the perfect sandwich? That question is contemplated by four of the five characters in “Clyde’s,” the Tony Award-nominated drama playing at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre that expertly sandwiches in humor (pun intended). These four people have several things in common: they are ex-cons, they work in the kitchen of a Pennsylvania truck stop cafe, and they’re hoping to better their lives – or at least survive encounters with the fifth character, Clyde, their boss, a woman whose hellish treatment of kitchen staff goes far beyond what Gordon Ramsay could do on network television.
Before we go on, a bit of background. “Clyde’s” is the latest play by Lynn Nottage, the only woman (so far) to win two Pulitzer Prizes for drama. “Clyde’s” was on Broadway as recently as last January, and it was nominated for five Tony Awards, including Best Play. Nottage has had five previous plays produced at the Goodman over the past 16 years, the most recent being “Sweat” in 2019.
Well, as a novice in Nottage-land, when I approached this production, I wasn’t sure if a play about a diner would be the equivalent of fine dining or a drive-thru lunch break. As it turned out, “Clyde’s” provided a buffet of fine performances, a garnish of humor, an appetizing set, and a large helping of profanity. (This is a play best attended by late teens and adults.)
Under the direction of Kate Whoriskey, who served the same role for the Broadway production, understudy Danielle Davis sinks her teeth into the part of Clyde (a role held by De’Adre Aziza). In the opening scene, she tells Montrellous (Kevin Kenerly), the saintlike leader of the kitchen staff, that the story he’s just shared with her – apparently about why he was incarcerated – isn’t going to garner any sympathy from her. “Look, 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.”
That’s about the closest Clyde comes to introspection and compassion throughout the play. For line cooks and sandwich preparers Rafael (Reza Salazar), Letitia (Nedra Snipes) and tattooed newcomer Jason (Garrett Young), there are no boundaries Clyde respects: she sexually harasses Jason, dashes Letitia’s dreams of finding someone sweet to love (“If a man goes through the trouble of buying you flowers, chocolates, dinner and a movie, believe me, he ain’t gonna be satisfied with a kiss at the end of the evening”), and constantly reminds all of them that they’re “losers” and “felons” she could easily replace. All three need the job and, possibly, each other.
They also need Montrellous. Of all the staff members, he provides the best chance of countering the negativity of this work environment. His inspirations and imaginative sandwich creations are appropriately – and amusingly – given a special soft light or spotlight by lighting designer Christopher Akerlind. In one particularly moving speech, Montrellous says, “You know why I love the sandwich? ’Cuz it’s a complete meal that you can hold between your fingers. It’s the most democratic of all foods. Two pieces of bread, and between you can put anything you want.”
If anyone can make this kitchen a place where you can be proud of your work, it’s Montrellous. Each of his co-workers wants to be as impressive with their “perfect sandwich” brainstorming as he is, but it’s hard to top things like a simple grilled-cheese sandwich when he describes it as “melted cheddar, garlic butter, on toasted sourdough bread, hand-baked.” If you’re not salivating for some kind of sandwich after this show, you’re just not paying attention.
Also, “props to you” for set designer Takeshi Kata and the Goodman’s props department, led by Alice Maguire. The set – with neon lights framing it – has everything from produce, sauces and other food items to knives, a walk-in freezer, shelves teeming with everything a diner would need to put orders together, appliances and more. If I hadn’t known I was in a theater seat, I would have sworn I was watching activities in a real kitchen, the actors clearly having learned what’s involved in working in such an environment thanks to their food consultant (Lisa Adams) and knife skills consultant/food prep coordinator (Kenerly, apparently being a guru backstage and onstage).
I’ll be honest: the ending of the play threw me for a bit of a loop, but Nottage’s script does include some earlier hints that should have prepared me.
Performed without an intermission, “Clyde’s” is quality entertainment that gives audience members a lot of food for thought.
• Paul Lockwood is a singer, local theater actor (including the new adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” coming to the Woodstock Opera House), Grace Lutheran Church (Woodstock) and Toastmasters member, theater reviewer, podcaster, columnist, business proposal writer and past president of TownSquare Players. He’s lived in Woodstock for more than 21 years.
IF YOU GO
WHERE: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago
WHEN: Extended through Oct. 16
INFORMATION: 312-443-3800, goodmantheatre.org/clydes