Saturday, July 15, 2023

Clyde's - Theaterworks Hartford

My favorite sandwich is corned beef - not too lean, with a little fat for flavoring - on a fresh seedless New York rye, cole slaw (not too runny) and brown mustard.


Clyde’s, running through August 5 at Theaterworks Hartford, is the company’s best production of a play this year.  Written by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage, the  show is entertaining, successfully melding comedy with dramatic moments.  You’ll leave Clyde’s smiling, but also thinking about the serious issues raised in the show.


The setting is the kitchen area of a dive sandwich shop, meticulously rendered with a plethora of minute details by Scenic Designer Collette Pollard and includes Eric Watlkins’ on-the-mark fluorescent lighting design.  Frequented by truckers, the business is ruled by Clyde (Antonia Phipps), an ex-con, foul-mouthed, pugnacious woman who treats her formerly incarcerated employees with disrespect and contempt.  These past offenders take her coarseness and incivility because no one else will employ people with a record.


The workers at the establishment are, relative old-timers, Letitia (Ayanna Bria Bakari) and Rafael (Samuel Maria Gomez), newcomer Jason (David T. Patterson) and Montrellous (Michael Chenevert), the sensei of sandwich making.  While they toil away at their meager jobs, dodging the bombastic owner at all costs, they share their troubles and their hopes for a better tomorrow.  Throughout the show, led by their intrepid leader Montrellous, they attempt to create the perfect sandwich, which helps them overcome their distressing lives as they dream about a better future.


My second favorite sandwich - a post-Thanksgiving turkey creation, with moist dark meat, stuffing (cold or reheated), homemade cranberry sauce, on a home baked pumpkin roll.


What elevates Ms. Nottage’s work beyond simple comedic moments are the stories by the four kitchen staff members - the difficulties they continuously face and their attempts to move forward.  At different points during the play, we learn about each person’s background.  There are no excuses, only regrets about their actions.  Initially blaming the world for their woes, they come to the realization they need to step up and take responsibility for their past.


As the 90-minute, intermission-less production concludes, there is a real sense of camaraderie and bonding among the foursome.  Clyde is an unavoidable irritant, but she cannot extinguish their affirming spirit.


Director Mikael Burke takes the playwright’s text and shapes it into a taut show.  The kitchen space is cramped, but the performers move in a well-orchestrated dynamism.  The many scene changes are accomplished quickly, never slowing down the pacing of the show.  Ms. Burke adeptly combines the humorous, confessional and heartfelt moments with skill and care.


The cast - Antonia Phipps, Ayanna Bria Bakari, Samuel Maria Gomez, David T. Patterson and Michael Chenevert - truly embody their characters with realism and truth.  They create a highly satisfying arc of believability.  My main critique is Antonia Phipps’ portrayal of Clyde.  Yes, she is one mean hombre (and you have to love the flashy outfits she wears, courtesy of Costume Designer Alexis Carrie), but she could have been even more over-the-top, which would have given more credence to the kitchen crew’s constant fear of her.


Clyde’s, a theatrical treat for foodies and others, playing at Theaterworks Hartford through August 5.  Click here for information on dates, times and tickets.

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