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What would you put on your perfect sandwich? That’s an ongoing debate among the crew at the truck-stop restaurant Clyde’s, which also gives Lynn Nottage’s newest play its title. The staff passes the workday by calling out clever combinations and speculating whether the perfect sandwich is out there or if it’s an unattainable goal. The characters have all been incarcerated previously, and it’s not just the perfect hoagie that seems unattainable, but anything beyond the limbo of their lives.
Nottage’s previous Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat was set in Reading, Pennsylvania, against the backdrop of a labor strike that goes sideways, with devastating consequences for main character Jason. This play is again set in Reading, and the character of Jason (Quinn M. Johnson) features in this as well (call it the Lynn Nottage theatrical universe), recently returned from prison, living on the streets, and closed off to his coworkers. As the new guy on the team, the others goad him for his shyness, and Quinn’s rendition allows him to embody the softer side of this barbed character.
Also working on the line is Letitia (Kashayna Johnson), a single mom to a sick child with a personality that can be bubbly or biting, depending on the day. Kashayna is infinitely watchable in this role, mouthing off and cheekily sidling up to her coworkers. She’s doted on by the puppy-doggish Rafael (Brandon Ocasio), a recovering addict with an optimistic outlook, and Ocasio brings an irrepressible energy to the role. All of them are in awe of the sage “sandwich sensei” Montrellous (Lamont Thompson), the one who is always encouraging them to elevate their craft beyond frozen and fried cafe fare. His sandwiches “taste like the truth,” and he’s prone to philosophizing and dropping hard truths as well.
The owner, Clyde (Dee Dee Batteast), the crew continually emphasizes, is the only one who would hire them. That’s about as far as her kindness goes. She’s otherwise as cold as a walk-in freezer and does everything but slap two pieces of bread on either side of her underlings’ heads and call them idiot sandwiches. Batteast effortlessly swans around the stage, dressed fabulously and always with a cigarette or beer bottle dangling from her fingers as she cuts her workers down to size. Montrellous puts a fine point on it: Clyde is the embodiment of the obstacles they all face, not only discouraging them from their sandwich experimentations but from having any hope for the future. “We all have them days,” Rafael reassures Letitia when she’s going through a rough patch. “Yeah, but this is like every day,” she replies.
Despite Clyde’s iron fist and the sometimes tragic circumstances that the characters find themselves in, this is a funny play that chugs along for its 100-minute run time. In TV, there are “hangout comedies,” and Clyde’s is something of a hangout play, following the daily rhythms of the kitchen crew as they go about their work, rib each other, and worry about their lives in the background. The cast has an easy, believable chemistry that makes watching them a pleasure even when there’s not a ton of action.
Everything about this play feels real and lived-in. Between scenes are needle drops of songs like “Can’t Stand the Rain” and “W.A.P.,” which the cast occasionally sings or dances along to as the lights come up. The kitchen set, designed by Junghyun Georgia Lee, looks so authentic that the audience might be tempted to ask when their order will be up. Actual food prep is happening onstage (kudos to props designer Deb Thomas for what must be a highly unusual grocery shopping schedule) and from the elevated seats the crowd can watch the actors actually squirting out squiggles of chipotle mayo. The show credits not one but two sensory consultants (Miriam Songster and Kate McLean) that helped to create a scented experience for the show, tapping into that fifth sense that’s rarely used in live theater. Ben’s Chili Bowl is even listed as a “sandwich consultant,” lest you doubt the show’s culinary cred.
Though there are some touching, teachable moments, the play ends with a final cutting image that sticks the knife in. Clyde’s is the most-staged production in the U.S. this theatrical season, putting Studio Theatre in good company, and it’s clear that this tale of regular people on the margins is something audiences have been hungry for.
Clyde’s, directed by Candis C. Jones and written by Lynn Nottage, runs through April 16 at Studio Theatre. studiotheatre.org. $50–$95.