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Nothing in Lynn Nottage’s play Clyde’s is only what it first appears to be. While on the surface it’s a play about a diner in a truck stop somewhere near Reading, PA, that establishment is not merely a way station for hungry drivers but also a liminal space – a limbo, if you will – for its employees, all of whom have felony convictions and prison records. Likewise, the sandwiches they make for their clientele are not mere sustenance but stand-ins for artistic expression and self-actualization, and the practice of making sandwiches a means of disciplining a kind of Zen present-mindedness. Indeed, the play itself is at once both a light comedy about misfits, and a thinly veiled allegory of redemption, in which angels and devils battle over possession of the hearts and minds of the once-fallen.

L to R: Khalil Kain and Latonia Phipps. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

The two chief antagonists are the saintly Montrellous (Khalil Kain), a kind of culinary kung fu master of the art of sandwich-making, and his boss, the cartoonishly villainous Clyde (Latonia Phipps), who heaps all manner of abuse on her employees, for reasons largely unexplained (except that she’s, y’know, the devil incarnate). Clyde is the only employer in the area who will hire ex-cons, which gives her masochistic power over her line cooks. These, it turns out, are all Good People who have made Bad Choices, and who seem to have been doomed to suffer for a spell in the purgatory of Clyde’s kitchen. Tish (Saige Smith) is a single mother who did time after robbing a pharmacy for prescription medicine for her disabled child (and nabbing some Oxycodone and Adderall to sell on the side). Rafael (Jerreme Rodriguez) got hopped up on drugs and shot a bank employee in the face while committing armed robbery with a BB gun because he wanted to buy his girlfriend a King Charles Spaniel. And the newest employee, Jason (Patrick Cannon), regrets both the rage-induced assault that landed him in prison, and the white supremacist tattoos he obtained while behind bars.

L to R: Saige Smith, Jerreme Rodriguez, and Patrick Cannon. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

If that last character sounds familiar, it’s because he represents a link to Nottage’s 2015 play Sweat, in which the character Jason attacks Oscar (a Latino worker who crossed a picket line to take work in the local mill) and in the ensuing melee winds up giving a traumatic brain injury to bartender Stan. When the Pittsburgh Public Theater produced that play in 2018, Cannon embodied the role of Jason with a sullen intensity; the continuity of casting here helps to flesh out the broader world of the play for those of us who had the opportunity to see the earlier production (which also featured Clyde’s director, Monteze Freeland, as Jason’s parole officer). But while the actor is the same, both the personality and the facial tattoos have undergone a confusing change: this Jason is far sweeter and more pliant than the character in the earlier play (and the prominent swastika on his cheek has shrunk significantly). The shift in genre from tragedy to comedy requires that Jason be redeemable – and Cannon threads the needle of Jason’s remorse and guilt with finesse – but it’s nonetheless a little hard to square this character’s about-face into meek submission with his cocksure past “self.” 

Rodriguez, who was also in the PPT production of Sweat, playing Oscar with a quiet dignity, is here a tightly wound spring as Rafael; it’s not hard to believe that this is a man who is holding on to his newly-won sobriety with every fiber of his being. Smith’s Tish is feisty and fierce, and together they form a spiky foil to Kain’s soft-spoken Montrellous, to whom they are eager acolytes. For Montrellous, making a perfect sandwich is an expression of love – he says at one point that the sandwich represents strength, freedom, victory, and redemption – and as a Sensei of the Sandwich he is prone to offering aphoristic insights like “overcomplication obscures truth” in relation to both seasonings and life. While at times this sage philosophizing threatens to get heavyhanded, the play is also at its best when it self-consciously makes fun of its own indulgence in the “Ah, Grasshopper” trope.

Sandwiches also stand in for an aspiration that is anathema to Clyde’s dark view of the world. The four line cooks spend much of the play inventing recipes for their dream sandwich and testing those recipes out, but Clyde will neither taste their offerings of enlightenment nor put them on the menu. The comedy of this play inheres in both its snappy dialogue and in the fact that it puts its finger on the scale in favor of hope: in the end, the cooks come together to create a sandwich that is their ticket out of purgatory. Whether Clyde is able to see the light is a question that the play leaves unresolved.