The Oscars, Emmys and Tonys give out awards for best actors and best directors. Typically, these honorees are working with the very best material. Maybe “best” should mean that actor or director who takes flawed or flimsy material and turns it into something worth watching. That’s the miracle director Kate Whoriskey performs with Lynn Nottage’s sketchy new play, “Clyde’s,” which opened Tuesday at Second Stage’s Helen Hayes Theater.
What Whoriskey’s flashy direction can’t disguise is how much Nottage borrows from a 2019 foodie comedy presented Off Broadway at MCC. In Theresa Rebeck’s “Seared,” Raul Esparza’s chef refused to compromise his cassoulet au confit de canard and other dishes to please any VIP’s unsophisticated palate. That’s basically the story of “Clyde’s,” with two very significant changes. Nottage sets her 100-minute comedy in a diner that caters not to the New York elite but truckers, and the kitchen is staffed by ex-cons. That plot signals the other big difference: “Clyde’s” tackles an Important Subject, the vicious revolving door of America’s incarceration system. The four characters slinging the mayo and the mustard can’t leave the hell of Clyde’s diner or else its eponymous owner will report them to a parole officer.
Rebeck wrote a very nuanced female villain for “Seared,” and at MCC, Krysta Rodriguez played her with a devious nonchalance. To describe Nottage’s female villain as a bulldozer is to insult Caterpillar. She’s a woman named Clyde, and she’s literally Satan. As effectively played by the curvy Uzo Aduba, Clyde is also a R. Crumb cartoon come to life. In a directorial touch that’s by far the production’s best running gag, Aduba gets more costume changes than Jeanna de Waal in “Diana,” and even more deliciously, Clyde’s many outrageous outfits are originals (by the gifted Jennifer Moeller), not knock-offs of Dior or Stambolian.
Both Nottage and Rebeck share that most basic of playwrighting talents: At their best, they deliver dialogue that sizzles in the ear. Nottage is especially good at bickering, which is in no short supply among her sandwich makers. Letitia (Kara Young), the single mom in recovery, and Rafael (Reza Salazar), the self-proclaimed “sous-chef” of BLTs, are waiting and eager to do immediate battle with Jason, the new employee (Edmund Donovan) whose prison-gang tats and disregard for salmonella are subjects No. 1 and 2. Only Montrellous (Ron Cephas Jones), who finds both art and salvation among the cilantro, can bring peace to this fractious group. Jones, working with much less pricey ingredients, is every bit as committed to finding culinary perfection as Esparza was in the Rebeck play.
“Clyde’s” is a battle between the saint and Satan. Rather than treating this extreme contrast as a flaw, Whoriskey embraces it to bring a magical realism to the production. The performances, however, are never as sharp as they are in those first few squabbles over the cutting boards. Only Aduba is able to build on her horrible first impression, and that’s because the devil, once again, gets all the best jokes, not to mention couture that would make Kyrsten Sinema blush.
After their initial bitch sessions, the four short-order cooks get handed the less enviable task of telling each other how they ended up in jail. After a couple of these confessions, only the repeated interruptions of Aduba’s Clyde can restore the narrative drive. As to be expected, Montrellous’ incarceration story is left for last, and it’s a whopper. He all but petitions the pope to begin the beatification process.