Lynn Nottage play ‘Clyde’s’ scores at the Mark Taper Forum

“If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen,” advises a popular proverb among tough love advocates. And in a universe with free will and infinite possibilities, that’s probably sound advice. Don’t sit around bitching about your situation; find one you like better.

But what if there’s nowhere else to go? What if a kitchen’s inferno was your whole world?

Such is the predicament of the kitchen staff at Clyde’s, the truck stop sandwich shop where Lynn stars in Nottages’ 2021 Tony-nominated playful, provocative dark comedy “Clyde’s,” now on the Mark Taper Forum. Greasy Spoon’s sandwiches are unexpectedly tasty, but it’s not healthy as a workplace; in fact, its toxicity has an operational range.

Tamberla Perry plays the imposing restaurant owner "Clydes."

Tamberla Perry plays the titular owner of the restaurant in playwright Lynn Nottage’s “Clyde’s.”

(Craig Schwartz)

The boss, Clyde (the galvanic Tamberla Perry), is a larger than life, frighteningly glamorous villain in an ever-changing armor of lycra and leather haute couture. She loves to scare, belittle, sexually harass and shame her co-workers. Anyone who’s ever had to work for a charismatic thug will recognize the storm of terror, pleading, and adoration that Clyde provokes every time she shows up in the kitchen in a new snazzy wig and shiny stiletto heels.

So why not just stop? One obstacle is that all of these workers were recently released from prison, so no one else will hire them. Self-serving, Clyde is the rare businesswoman willing to give ex-convicts a shot. She could be considered a philanthropist, except by taking on probation officers, she essentially makes herself her new warden, empowered to punish or pet her as she pleases. They escaped from one prison to another.

The story takes place near the same ruined Rust Belt town – Reading, Pa. —, in which Nottage’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Sweat” stars. Nottage spent several years visiting Reading and interviewing residents while researching Sweat, which sees a close-knit group of steelworkers break up over a dispute between union management and race. Clyde’s was also inspired by some of her stories, and the two plays even share a character: Jason (played here by Garrett Young), the well-meaning but insecure young man who commits a brutal attack in “Sweat” and then, succumbs to white supremacist rhetoric in prison.

But Jason is a fish out of water in “Clyde’s,” more henchman than threat. When he arrives fresh out of prison for his first shift, his new co-workers are not pleased to meet him. Letitia (or Tish, played by the lovable Nedra Snipes), the black single mother of a special needs child, and Rafael (the cowardly but endearing Reza Salazar, who originated the role of a Latino addict) don’t just find Jason’s gang – Tattoos are repulsive, but they also protect their territory and their hard-won expertise.

And while Jason thinks he’s here to make sandwiches, Tish and Rafael have a much loftier attitude about their work. They have fallen under the influence of veteran clerk Montrellou (the easygoing Kevin Kenerly), who portrays sandwich-making as a sacred art form and himself as their high priest. The three compete playfully for the perfect recipe. Montrellous always wins with entries like “Maine lobster, potato buns, gently roasted and buttered with roasted garlic, paprika and minced pepper and truffle mayo, caramelized fennel and a sprinkling of… of… dill.” Jason thinks she’s crazy — until he does of Montrellou’s grilled cheese masterpieces. The next thing he knows he’s fantasizing about flavor combinations and toppings.

None of this suits Clyde, who has no interest in turning her restaurant into a foodie destination and whose real business may be laundering money for her mysterious “investors” backstage.

As this synopsis suggests, “Sweat” and “Clyde’s” have very different tones despite coming from the same source. Where “Sweat” is a heartbreaking social drama, “Clyde’s” has the unthreatening panache of a sitcom. Like sitcom employees, Clyde’s chefs complain about how busy they are, and they look busy as they smash cleavers through heads of lettuce, slap turkey slices on wax paper and lavishly squirt sauces over them. But their efforts produce remarkably few sandwiches. For people who insist that “we don’t have time for socializing,” they do a lot of that — grow as characters, fall in and out of love, resist and succumb to temptation. So is Nottage trying to follow in the footsteps of Tracy Letts, whose Broadway play Superior Donuts, roundly labeled a sitcommy, was actually adapted into a CBS series?

Although this production, which premiered at Chicago’s Second Stage Theater, contains elements of both Waiting for Lefty and the 1970s CBS series Alice, it is at its core an existential parable in the tradition of No Exit” (but more optimistic). , and with sandwiches). In Kate Whorisky’s lively theatrical production, Clyde’s looks like a dingy restaurant (the convincing set is by Takeshi Kata), but it’s really an allegorical place, a philosophical arena for the age-old struggle between good and evil. Tish, Rafael and Jason are pilgrims in search of meaning and beauty in a cowardly world forced to choose between self-preservation and self-expression.

Clyde insists they produce the inferior sandwiches their guests will tolerate; Montrellou inspires them to chase an aesthetic ideal without caring about market appeal. The conflict between the magnitude of what is at stake (hope, redemption, the nobility of the human spirit) and the mundaneness of the medium (turkey, mayo) is the source of the play’s tongue-in-cheek humor. The culminating showdown actually involves cucumber indulgence.

Nottage’s dialogue brims with hints of the archetypes she’s woven into her unglamorous surroundings: “They’ll make you pay in blood,” Tish warns of Clyde. “She could actually be the devil,” ventures Jason. Rafael describes Clyde’s sinister investors as southern sharks. “They come from the underworld,” he adds. “I looked this one guy in the eyes and it was like staring off into the abyss.”

Montrellous, on the other hand, is almost comically sacred. When it’s his turn to reveal why he went to prison, his story is so noble that Jason exclaims, “How the hell are we supposed to live with ourselves? I feel inadequate around you.”

A long shot of the "Clydes" The set shows a dingy canteen kitchen with employees spread out under a sloping ceiling.

The characters of “Clyde’s” have traded one kind of prison for another, a canteen in which they are trapped and chasing dreams at the same time.

(Craig Schwartz)

Whorisky and her designers have embraced these eschatological cues with bold surrealist accents. Each time Montrellou begins one of his inspirational monologues, lighting designer Christopher Akerlind bathes him in a warm glow, while Justin Ellington provides an awesome soundtrack. Clyde’s outfits, designed with delicious panache by Jennifer Moeller, get more fiendish with each scene, until finally Clyde is clad in bright red, skintight leather. At some moments, if we didn’t get the references, the stage bursts into flames.

This bold combination of dramatic precedents has much in common with Montrellou’s sandwich-making philosophy. “What I find is that you have to surprise yourself with an ingredient that shouldn’t work, something that ties everything together,” he muses. “Think of the challenging taste that will exceed all expectations and elevate your sandwich.” It’s obvious that he’s talking about more than just sandwiches. Come to think of it, writing a play is a bit like making a sandwich: choosing ingredients that appeal to a wide range of consumers without selling your soul. Mix in just enough humor and optimism to balance the bitterness of your vision without making it too sweet.

When Jason designs his first sandwich, Montrellou is critical: “You wanted it to be too much and you didn’t trust yourself with the ingredients. … withdraw. Overcomplication obscures the truth.” Some people might have a similar reaction to “Clyde’s”—and that’s sort of the point. Even in the muggy kitchen we all have to live in (because there are no other rooms in the house), we find ways to create something meaningful together. Or at least give yourself something to chew on.


Where: Center Theater Group Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., LA

When:8 p.mTuesday to Friday, 2:30 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., Saturday, 1:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., Sunday. Ends December 18th. (Call for exceptions.)

Tickets: $35-$120 (subject to change)

The information: (213) 628-2772

Duration:1 hour 30 minutes without a break

COVID Protocol:Masks are strongly recommended. Lynn Nottage play ‘Clyde’s’ scores at the Mark Taper Forum

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