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Review | At Studio Theatre, Lynn Nottage’s ‘Clyde’s’ serves up hope and humour


Don’t tell the chefs in line at Clyde’s that a sandwich is just the stuff of lunchboxes and rushed desk meals. For the ex-con characters in “Clyde’s,” Lynn Nottage’s funny and touching albeit flawed play directed by Candis C. Jones at Studio Theater, a sandwich is much more.

“It is the most democratic of all foods. … It invites inventiveness and collaboration,” says Montrellous (played by Lamont Thompson), a visionary who makes sandwiches and works at the greasy spoon truck stop run by Clyde (Dee Dee Batteast). By inventing delicacies in bread (think Maine lobster with truffle mayonnaise and fennel on a potato bun), Montrellous inspires his fellow kitchen eaters to think of themselves not as ex-felons desperate for a job, but as culinary artists.

They get no support from Clyde, whose menu ideals rise to ham-and-cheese on white. Even worse, the ruthless businesswoman is a tyrannical sadist, relentlessly bullying her staff: “I can’t get a new batch of nobody to do your job,” she taunts at one point. It’s a characterization that, at least here, gets monotonous without being completely revealing. One longs for more varied, satisfying insight into what makes Clyde tick.

Fortunately, the portrait of the line chefs striving for redemption is richer, and the sharp performances at Studio respond to that. Former bank robber Rafael (Brandon Ocasio, exudes spot-on verve and seriousness) has learned from Montrellous to strive for sublime sandwich. So is the vivacious yet anxious Letitia (an amazing Kashayna Johnson), who is the mother of a child with a disability. Tensions rise with the arrival of a new co-worker, Jason (Quinn M. Johnson, convincingly intense), who has white supremacist tattoos.

Jason will be familiar to audiences who have seen “Sweat,” Nottage’s exploration of America’s industrial decline, which made her the first woman to win two Pulitzer Prizes for drama in 2017. (Her Congo set “Ruined” earned her first, in 2009.) In fact, “Clyde’s” is set in the same tough Pennsylvania community as “Sweat.” Amidst “Clyde’s” witty, aioli-referencing banter, the play teases the characters’ backstories in a way that reflects on some of the grim systemic issues “Sweat” also pondered: America’s inadequate social safety net. A lack of second chances. Capitalism’s ability to exacerbate racial, ethnic, and class divisions.

These sombre notes are more apparent in Jones’ production than the comedic one, which is not a criticism. (Marketing materials call the play a comedy.) Some great directorial touches linger, like when three characters decant olive oil in sync, the golden lighting and jazzy instrumentals reinforce the sense that the trio has reached a state of flow. (Colin K. Bills is lighting designer; sound design and original music are by Matthew M. Nielson.)

Adding texture is Junghyun Georgia Lee’s beautifully detailed restaurant kitchen set. As if that wasn’t naturalism enough, the poster also credits “sensory advisors” Miriam Songster and Kate McLean, contributing subtly diffused aromas such as those of thyme and toasted bread. (DC audiences will appreciate Ben’s Chili Bowl being credited as a “sandwich consultant” for this production.)

The vibrancy of the setting propels the ex-convicts’ struggles – being a cook at Clyde’s is no easy life – and underscores their feats of turning sandwiches into hope.

from Clyde, by Lynn Nottage. Directed by Candis C. Jones; costume design, Danielle Preston; props, Deb Thomas. 100 minutes. $50-$95. Through April 9 at Studio Theater, 1501 14th St. NW. 202-332-3300. studiotheater.org.

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