Review by Carol Rocamora . . .

Since when has Purgatory been so much fun?

Spend an hour and a half with the workers stuck in a limbo called Clyde’s Restaurant, and you’ll wish you didn’t have to leave.  You’ll want to hang out with them, eat their sandwiches, and hear their stories over and over again.

Clyde’s, Lynn Nottage’s gem of a new play, is the name of a greasy spoon just outside of Reading, Pa.  The owner-from-hell, after whom the establishment is named, is a larger-than-life ex-con whose four employees have also recently been released from prison and are trying to put their lives back together again. PIayed by a fabulous, ferocious Uzo Abuda, Clyde keeps them incarcerated in the kitchen like a cruel prison warden, barking sandwich orders through a window in the wall, demanding absolute submission and obedience.

Uzo Abuda – Ron Cephas

Character portrayal is one of Nottage’s many gifts as a playwright (Ruined, Intimate, Apparel, Sweat), and she outdoes herself in Clyde’s.  We get to know and love these four characters, as they work in the grimy sandwich shop, interact, and tell their stories.  One by one we learn what put them in prison in the first place. Letitia (a feisty Kara Young) a single Black mother, stole some addictive drugs after breaking into a pharmacy to obtain medication for her disabled daughter. Rafael (a high-wired Rez Salazar) held up a bank with a BB gun, for money to buy his girlfriend a dog. Jason (Edmund Donovan), tattooed to the gills with white supremacist logos, turns out to be a carry-over from Sweat, Nottage’s 2015 play, where he brutally attacked a bar worker. And the saintly Montrellous (a moving Ron Cephas Jones) served time for another’s crime – the details of which I daren’t reveal here, lest I rob you of one of the play’s most moving moments.  By the time we hear all their stories, these characters have uniformly gained our empathy and affection – an admirable accomplishment in the theatre these days.

But Nottage’s characters are not like the passive ones in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, who hang out in Harry Hope’s Saloon and wallow in their “pipe dreams” and hopeless hopes. No. Clyde’s characters are determined to make something with their lives. As they go about their tasks, these hard-working souls play a game together – proposing fantasies for creating the most imaginative sandwich ever made. “Fried quail egg salad with mint on oven-fresh cranberry pecan multigrain bread” is one. “Pulled pork, pickled onions, blueberry compote on a soft pretzel roll”, is another. It’s their therapy, a ritual designed to restore their self-esteem and hope for the future. “Think about that challenging flavor that’s gonna defy expectation and elevate your sandwich.” said Monstrellous, the group’s spiritual leader, giving them the encouragement they so desperately crave.  That could also be said about their lives.

Edmund Donovan – Rez Salazar

But not if Clyde can help it.  Clyde is hope’s enemy – and as well as her employees’ Nemesis with a capital “N.”  The formidable Uzo Aduba reigns over this Purgatory like Satan in the underworld.  Every time she storms into the kitchen, in the sensational costumes designed by Jennifer Moeller, it’s a star entrance.  Dressed in skin-tight black patent leather pants with spike heels, or electrifying yellow, or raging red (there must be at least a half dozen changes), she paces to and fro, dominating over her dingy domain with a cruel relish (also a sandwich ingredient, by the way, that brings the play to its climax).  She knows that her employees are desperate to keep their jobs, so there’s no depth she won’t sink to in bullying and humiliating them. “I don’t do pity,” she barks, as she repeatedly attempts to break their spirits.  “Don’t disappoint me by having aspirations,” she warns.

Each member of the ensemble shines – literally, under Kate Whorisky’s sure and swift direction. Her design team highlights each of Uzo Abuda’s star entrances onto Takeshi Kata’s set with a special lighting cue (by Christopher Akerlind) or sound effect (by Justin Ellington).  That goes for the “fantasy sandwich” moments too.  As this fast-paced story builds to its moving climax (again, no spoiler), a sudden burst of flames represents the hell that these characters have been living through, followed by the promise of redemption that awaits them, once they realize they have the power to make their dreams come true after all.

Clyde’s, by Lynn Nottage, directed by Kate Whorisky a Second Stage Production at the Helen Hayes Theater – run time approximately 95 minutes, through January 16, 2022.

Photos: Joan Marcus