Montrellous is a greasy-spoon chef with the soul of an artist. When not churning out grilled-cheese-on-Wonder-bread and tuna-on-rye for truckers, he dreams up gourmet sandwiches he may or may not ever actually make. “Maine lobster, potato roll gently toasted and buttered with roasted garlic, paprika and cracked pepper, with truffle mayo, caramelized fennel and a sprinkle of” — dramatic pause — “dill,” he intones, with a sense of wonder.
Clyde, his boss, is not the least bit interested in his culinary ambitions. “You know I don’t eat that crap,” she sneers.
Nor does she care about his philosophical musings on overcoming your past and fulfilling your potential. “You wanna know the last time I shed tears? Never,” she says. And, seconds later. “I’m not indifferent to suffering. But I don’t do pity.”
Clyde and Montrellous are the two main characters in “Clyde’s,” Lynn Nottage’s drama/comedy, which was nominated for the Tony for Best Play when it debuted on Broadway in late 2021 and early 2022, and is currently being presented by George Street Playhouse at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. It’s a lively, vividly imagined play, though a bit slight: Over the course of its intermissionless 100-minute length, the confrontations between its five characters become repetitious.
Melissa Maxwell directs this production, and Riw Rakkulchon designed the cluttered, dingy, intricately detailed and marvelously realistic set: a diner kitchen that becomes a battleground.
Clyde (played here by Darlene Hope) is an ex-con, and hires ex-cons to work for her. We learn the characters’ back stories, to varying degrees, over the course of the play, and the tribulations they are facing. “Just ’cause you left prison doesn’t mean you’re out of prison,” Montrellous (Gabriel Lawrence) says.
Clyde, who gives everyone a hard time, seems to be the diner’s only waitperson, bringing orders back to the kitchen and endlessly fuming that the meals aren’t being made fast enough.
Montrellous is the king of the kitchen, with the younger Tish (Sydney Lolita Cusic) and Rafael (Xavier Reyes) working under him and virtually worshiping his way with a sandwich. The wild card is Jason (Ryan Czerwonko), a stoic new hire and a former gang member. His many tattoos — including one of a swastika, over his throat — mark him as an outsider to be wary of.
He’s just there for the paycheck, but begins to fall under Montrellous’ sway, too. Meanwhile, Rafael makes his romantic feelings for the uninterested Tish known, and Clyde intimidates everyone she comes into contact with.
“Don’t ask her for nothing,” Rafael tells Jason. “Nada, bro. Don’t even smile, ’cause she don’t like for nobody to be happy. Don’t even lift the corners of your mouth. Straight-faced. Nothing.”
Kudos to Hope, for showing us glimpses of a vulnerable human being at the core of the monster that human being has become. But I felt that Nottage’s home stretch was a bit contrived: Montrellous tells a story about his past that makes him seem saint-like (“I feel inadequate in your presence,” Jason confesses) and the four workers unite to take a stand against Clyde’s give-the-people-what-they-want philosophy of sandwich-making.
“Do you think a perfect sandwich can be made?” Tish asks Montrellous, in the aftermath.
“Perhaps,” he responds. “Or will it just awaken another longing?”
You will never think about sandwich garnishes, and condiments, the same way again.
George Street Playhouse presents “Clyde’s” at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through Feb. 19. Visit georgestreetplayhouse.org.
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