CLYDE’S, Ensemble Theatre, 9 May-10 June 2023. Photography by Prudence Upton: above - Aaron Tsindos, Nancy Denis, Ebony Vagulans and Gabriel Alvarado; below - Charles Allen; below again - Tsindos, Alvarado and Vagulans
According to playwright Lynn Nottage, her latest – Clyde’s – is a dramedy “about creativity, resilience, mindfulness, community, and the healing power of delicious food”. This is as well to know because the sandwiches produced across its 90 minutes look pretty damn crook! And, unintentionally perhaps, they’re at the heart of a glaring contradiction within the play itself.
The kitchen staff at Clyde’s Diner daydream to each other about the creations they long to put on the menu – if only the monstrous boss lady of the title would let them. Meanwhile they dutifully slap together the rigidly-prescribed dreary items on which she insists. And herein lies the puzzle: how come, halfway through, the joint gets a glowing review in the Philly newspaper when we have been thoroughly schooled to believe the existing menu is dreck?
And why is Clyde so obdurate about having anything new on the menu anyway? There is no logical reason for this, nor for her breathtakingly vile behaviour towards Rafael, Letitia – Tish, Montrellous, and Jason. All are former felons for an either colourful or petty crime.
Clyde’s Diner is a sort of halfway house for the recently released. It provides jobs in a society that would rather not give them one, yet it also entraps them: if they leave it will be hard to get another and they – and Clyde – know that. She is a rare piece of work. While strutting around spitting suggestive witticisms – channelling Mae West’s evil twin – Clyde tells them that the last man who tried to pull a swifty on her “isn’t around to try again, I made damn sure of that.” And you believe her.
Clyde was clearly a little girl who stomped her foot to make people do her bidding. Now she’s a big girl who stomps her foot for the same reasons and it quickly becomes tiresome – as is her unrelenting bitchiness. When, after much effort, she manages to goad Jason into almost taking a swing at her (I would have helped him, happily) he searches desperately for an epithet to describe her. He finally gets out between clenched teeth that she’s “mean”, which is just inadequate. Nancy Denis gives her all in service of this gruesome creature and is splendid. Let’s hope to see her in a more deserving role: she’ll fly.
The four workers are a disparate mob and brought to life with skill and heart. Charles Allen’s serene Zen-ness as the sandwich-creating sage Montrellous is a welcome antidote to Clyde and over time inexorably draws in his workmates. Aaron Tsindos is highly effective as Jason, a visibly white supremacist, with “1488” tattooed on his cheek and SS flashes on his arms, yet he falls under Montrellous’s spell in the quest for the perfect sandwich. He tells his mentor, “The other day a trucker wanted ketchup on his tuna salad, and it made me sick. But I did it, and I feel ashamed Montrellous. I did not have your resolve.” Montrellous beams and gently responds, “I understand”.
For his part, the Latino burger flipper Rafael wrestles with Clyde’s cruelty, the inadequacies of the kitchen and his growing love for Tish. She is mainly oblivious because her sole focus is her disabled daughter and the working poverty that means she is barely able to buy necessary medicines for the child. (And how she ended up in jail in the first place.) Ebony Vagulans and Gabriel Alvarado are charming, human, and credible in their roles and only highlight the disconnect between the four and the boss.
That Clyde belongs in a burlesque bar rather than a down-at-heel truck stop is underlined by the hilarious excess of her constantly-changing outfits, for which many baby sequins, satins and Lurexes must have died. Prowling around the prep counters sneering at lettuce and snarling at cheese slices, she and the dingy kitchen and equally drab workers are a credit to costume and set designer Simone Romaniuk. (Assisted by Morgan Moroney’s witty lighting schemes).
On opening night the production, directed by Darren Yap, seemed in need of more time to ease into the finger-snapping choreography and chit-chat of a busy kitchen. The audience loved it – an instantaneous standing O – but it’s an odd play that warns of a society is beyond decline and steadily disintegrating, with some laughs along the way.
And spare a thought for stage manager Lauren Tulloh and her assistant stage manager Jessica Law whose job it is, after each performance, to re-equip and supply the kitchen with carrots, lettuce, sandwiches, and whatever else isn’t diced to oblivion before ending up on the floor. And everything has to be in the correct place. Who’d be a stage manager?!