By Ruth Ross CAVEAT: Do not go to George Street Playhouse to see Clyde’s on an empty stomach. The descriptions of luscious sandwiches dreamed up by the four characters onstage will make your mouth water and your stomach grumble—much to the dismay of your fellow theater goers! (Above: Xavier Reyes, Ryan Czerwonka, Sydney Lolita Cusic, Darlene Hope, Gabriel Lawrence)
That said, if you value fine dramaturgy and performances, do go to the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center for a production of Lynn Nottage’s diner dramedy where you’ll confront the best and the almost-worst of humanity as a group of ex-convicts work mightily to regain the dignity they once possessed through a shared dream of bringing people together, like the quest for the perfect sandwich.
Four ex-cons toil mightily to please their boss, but that doesn’t stop them from dreaming about better, more delicious sandwiches they’d create if they had the chance. The putative leader of the kitchen, Montrellous is a maestro, a “sandwich sensei” (as one of the workers calls him admiringly), a man for whom cooking is freedom. He goads his fellow workers to come up with more exotic and unexpected sandwich combinations that give the mouth “a double orgasm”! Played by Gabriel Lawrence, the charming, smooth-talking Montrellous inspires his fellow line cooks as he dances around the kitchen. He commands the stage whenever he's on it—quite a feat—given the high bar set by the other three actors.
Halfway into the 90-minute run time, a white ex-con joins this tight-knit community. As Jason, Bryan Czerwonka just wants to be left alone to do his job; although wary, the others try to draw him out to join their sandwich fun. It’s heartwarming to watch him relax and become part of the group.
Clyde’s that playwright Lynn Nottage reveals the point of her play. Feeling comfortable and safe with each other, the four reveal the crimes that landed them in prison—an act that endows them with dignity and allows them to rise above their place as “felons making sandwiches.” This makes their final encounter with Clyde (no spoilers) even more satisfying. (Left, Czerwonka, Cusic, Reyes)
Riw Rakkulchon has designed a set that convincingly resembles a greasy spoon kitchen; Cheyenne Sykes’ lighting design, with its flickering neon frame, telegraphs the tawdriness of the truck stop and the tenuousness of the lives of those who work there. Scott O’Brien’s sound design and original music add to the charged atmosphere, and Azalea Fairley’s costumes suit each character. The prison tattoos sported by Jason are especially pertinent.
Christina (Cha) Ramos is credited as the fights and intimacy director, so I suppose she is responsible for the constant motion of the characters as they move around the playing space, chopping lettuce with sharp knives, juggling sauce bottles, filling and refilling the fryer basket, and never bumping into each other! It’s quite a feat to move like this while reciting dialogue, and the actors are to be commended for their agility and skill.
Clyde’s offers a slice of life lived by people most of us have never encountered. Lynn Nottage imbues them with dignity, hope and resilience to remind us that the crime is not the person, that there can be redemption after prison and that dreams—even if they are only about sandwiches—can cause the human spirit soar to heights never imagined. Clyde’s is a great way to celebrate Black History Month and to remind us of the humanity we all share—no matter what our circumstances may be.
Clyde’s will be performed by George Street Playhouse in the Arthur Laurents Theatre at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, 11 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, through February 19. For information and tickets, call (732) 246-7717 or go to www.georgestreetplayhouse.org.