Theater Review: CLYDE’S (Huntington Theatre, Boston)

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by Lynne Weiss on March 31, 2023

in Theater-Regional


You might call Clyde’s the other piece of bread in Lynn Nottage’s sandwich about Reading, Pennsylvania, where the playwright spent two years conducting interviews with residents of what was then named the poorest town in America. The first result of those interviews was Sweat, winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Set in a Reading bar, it portrays the tragic unravelling of a community under economic pressure. Out of that experience came the filling of the sandwich, This Is Reading, a site-specific multimedia exploration of the decline and rebirth of the town. With Clyde’s, Nottage gives us a portrayal of the strength of community and the importance of making choices in a “greasy spoon” sandwich shop, and this production, directed by Taylor Reynolds, does much more than satisfy.

Louis Reyes McWilliams -- photo by Kevin Berne

The characters who carry this message are all formerly incarcerated people. Four of them work for Clyde, the owner of the sandwich shop. You might think that a woman who hires only formerly incarcerated people would be compassionate (I for one have made some buying choices on the basis of similar hiring policies). But Clyde, who has also done time and who is deliciously played by April Nixon, is vicious. Never before have I seen a woman use her breasts as weapons, but Nixon pulls it off effectively. Rumored to have sold her soul to obtain the sandwich shop, Clyde is that “unexpected ingredient” which, according to Montrellous (Harold Surratt) is essential to any successful sandwich and which adds spice to this show. (And it might be worth mentioning that Clyde’s language, like that of some other characters, is salty.) Montrellous, who is like “Buddha, if he had grown up in the hood” is the essential “secret sauce” that brings the promise of enlightenment to this production.

Louis Reyes McWilliams, Cyndii Johnson -- photo by Kevin Berne

But a sandwich needs more than sauce and spice. These ingredients are provided by Cyndii Johnson in the role of Tish (short for Letitia), who movingly portrays the plight of a single mother with a disabled child trying to hold onto her job. Wesley Guimarães is her sympathetic co-worker, student to the inspiring Montrellous, eager to transform his life. The equilibrium of the kitchen is disrupted by the arrival of Jason (convincingly portrayed by Louis Reyes McWilliams), complete with racist tattoos on his face and neck. He is the ingredient that connects us to Sweat. When Jason arrives, we might expect that the play will pivot to the ways in which the other characters, all Black, incorporate him — or not — into their community. But Jason keeps to himself and lets us — and the others in the kitchen — know that he’s sorry, and we believe him.

Harold Surratt, April Nixon -- photo by Kevin Berne

These four share some common enemies. Most obvious in the play is Clyde, their employer, who enjoys taunting and humiliating them. They laugh and roll their eyes when she’s not around, but for the most part, as convicted felons, they think that they have no other employment options. What keeps them going is their shared dedication to creating the perfect sandwich. Behind the scenes, they work with exotic meats and cheeses, artisanal breads, sauces, herbs, and condiments: baby eggplant, puttanesca, quail eggs, mint, molasses butter, aioli, lobster, cilantro, pulled pork, blueberry jam, and dill are just some of the ingredients that make their way between sourdough, ciabatta, and other breads. They taste one another’s creations. Montrellous generally produces something to delight. The others not so much. As to Clyde, she doesn’t give a shit, and she makes that clear by stubbing out cigarettes into Montrellous’s sandwiches or throwing them into the trash. Yet Montrellous tries, again and again, to open Clyde “to life” with a sandwich.

Louis Reyes McWilliams, April Nixon -- photo by Kevin Berne

They also share the common enemies of an economic system that treats them as expendable, consumable as sandwiches, perhaps, and a carceral system that punishes them for life, long after they have served their sentences.

Harold Surratt, Cyndii Johnson -- photo by Kevin Berne

But Clyde, as she states clearly near the beginning of the play, “doesn’t do pity.”  The only change we see in this stone-cold creature is in her costuming (Karen Perry), a fascinating and arresting series of outfits and hair styles (Megan Ellis), that vary with Clyde’s every appearance in the course of the play. Even though she refuses to change, her employees finally reach the point when they recognize that just as when it comes to making sandwiches, they do have choices. “A sandwich,” Montrellous tells the crew, “is the most democratic of foods” and it invites invention.

Louis Reyes McWilliams, Harold Surratt, April Nixon -- photo by Kevin Berne

Anyone who has worked in food prep will recognize this well-designed set (Wilson Chin) of stainless steel and take-out containers. A great soundtrack (Aubrey Dube) and terrific neon sign as well as other features of the lighting (Amith Chandrashaker) add to our enjoyment. As with Clyde, Nottage doesn’t do pity. But unlike Clyde, Nottage does do hope, and this is what this play and this production offers: a sandwich of hope seasoned with dignity and respect for those who have suffered a great deal, with liberal sprinklings of humor, wisdom, and compassion.

Cyndii Johnson, Wesley Guimarães -- photo by Muriel Steinke

The Huntington
Huntington Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave in Boston
ends on April 23, 2023
for tickets, call 617.266.0800 or visit Huntington

Wesley Guimarães, April Nixon -- photo by Muriel Steinke

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