On its surface, the summary blurb on Lynn Nottage's Tony-nominated play Clyde's — five formerly incarcerated people grapple with day-to-day struggles in the kitchen of a truck stop diner — doesn't sound like a setup for comedy.
The play, now in performance at Berkeley Rep, unfolds in a brisk 90 minutes, in one act, in the kitchen of Clyde's, which is owned by a sharp-edged, unforgiving woman named Clyde (the very funny April Nixon) who, as we will learn, did time in prison for a violent crime we never hear the details of. The first employee we meet is Montrellous (Harold Surratt), a sort of elder-soothesayer of the sandwich-making craft, who tries to get Clyde to taste his take on an elevated grilled cheese, with cheddar and garlic butter — but she won't take a bite.
In fact, Clyde never eating anything becomes symbolic of her character — a tough woman always running on fumes and rage, plus cigarettes, for whom the small pleasures of life don't seem too compelling.
We soon meet the other three employees: Rafael (Wesley Guimarães), a former addict who's found work as the "sous chef" at Clyde's after doing time; Letitia (Cyndii Johnson), a woman on the verge of turning 30 who did time for stealing seizure medication for her daughter (and some other stuff) and who now makes sandwiches here and tries to stay on Clyde's good side; and Jason (Louis Reyes McWilliams), the newest arrival and only white guy, sporting gang tattoos on his face and neck, who just wants to make an honest buck.
The set, a well-worn restaurant kitchen with a few sandwich prep stations and a grill, is a pretty marvelously convincing replica of such a space — down to the bungee cords being used to hold the garbage bags up in their bins — and designer Wilson Chin deserves props for its level of dusty detail.
What unfolds is a small drama, shot through with many comic moments, about the difficulties of getting out of prison, starting over, staying clean (if it was drugs that got you there in the first place), and making a living at the only place in town that will hire ex-cons.
This is tough subject matter to be sure, and Nottage contrasts it with the culture of a kitchen — and with Montrellous's habit of imagining, and teaching his younger coworkers to imagine, the Platonic ideal of a sandwich. It's not a deep metaphor for life on the outside, but Montrellous calls the sandwich "the perfect food," entirely because it has no limits and is full of possibility, and the best kind are the ones created with love and pure intent.
Nottage's dialogue — and a few of these metaphors — gets heavy-handed at times. It's hard to imagine how it couldn't. But unlike her earlier play Sweat, which won her the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2017 and was also a workplace dramedy about the working class, there's less at stake in Clyde's, and a more of a didactic tone about these workers' circumstances.
In Sweat, which was performed in the Bay Area at ACT in 2018, steel workers of multiple backgrounds in mid-2000s Pennsylvania gather in a local bar and at times come to blows over union contracts, layoffs, and drunken rage. It's a story about how larger economic forces (like NAFTA) take a physical and emotional toll on human beings and their communities.
Clyde's, which is also set in Pennsylvania, is similarly about the physical and emotional toll of poverty and incarceration, and how the economic stress that might have driven them to the crimes that landed them in jail still exist when they get out. But the play doesn't do quite as subtle or effective of a job in weaving that message through conflict.
The characters, too, come across a bit two-dimensional, despite the competent hand of director Taylor Reynolds — though Nixon's performance as Clyde is both hilarious and heartbreaking at turns, and she does a terrific job of sucking the air out of every room she enters.
For those of us without friends or family who've been in jail, as a window into lives we most often only hear about as statistics, Clyde's is a compelling piece of fiction that feels drawn from plenty of truth.
Clyde's plays through February 26 at Berkeley Repertory Theater. Find tickets here.
Top image: Cyndii Johnson as Letitia and Wesley Guimarães as Rafael in Lynn Nottage’s Tony Award-nominated play Clyde’s at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Photo by Muriel Steinke/Berkeley Repertory Theatre