*/ ***** 1 out of 5
Lynn Nottage has a remarkable knack for channeling the complexities and anxieties of working class Americans in ways that social scientists and politicians have never been able to. In the very excellent “Sweat”, she pitted a Pennsylvania town of multi-racial steel factory union workers against arriviste immigrant laborers, rising above traditional racial alliances and making us realize that class struggle is just that, class struggle—ethnicity be damned. And in “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark”, she challenges race relationships among the Hollywood elite.
In Nottage’s latest, “Clyde’s”, playing through Sunday, January 16 at 2nd Stage and streaming online in its final week, she examines the struggles and hierarchies of ex-cons in the service industry workforce. And while “Clyde’s” maintains Nottage’s consistently powerful writing and hard-hitting messaging, its staging utterly fails the playwright.
Nottage has teamed once again with director Kate Whoriskey, whose past productions have been critically acclaimed. So, it’s difficult to understand just what went wrong with “Clyde’s”. Set in the kitchen of a truck stop restaurant and staffed by former inmates, it’s the story of a jumpy group of cooks who are trying to balance home and work life, while avoiding the wrath of their strange and seemingly bipolar boss, Clyde (Uzo Aduba). And perhaps this is where the production goes awry.
It’s more than difficult to understand who Clyde is and what she’s about. And Aduba doesn’t help things one bit. Known for her role as “Crazy Eyes” in the Netflix hit, “Orange is the New Black,” (OITNB) Aduba’s acting is too big for Clyde. She spends her time strutting and mugging and staring menacingly at her terrified employees. If they lose their jobs, they fear, they may just end up back in jail. But it’s hard to understand who Clyde is (notwithstanding her odd, incomprehensible, metaphysical moments brought about by Montrellous’s (Ron Cephas Jones) apparently magical sandwiches and their magnetic pull), because Aduba also does not appear to understand her character’s motivation.
In OITNB, she needed only to rely on Crazy Eyes’ gaze to convey moments of insanity which, naturally, cowed fellow inmates. It worked perfectly for the TV show, but here it just doesn’t work. Sadly, apart from Jones’ fantastic performance (which was smaller and measured, but had depth) her castmates seemed to have fallen under her (or, more likely, the director’s) spell and their acting, too, is unnecessarily exaggerated. I’ve seen the other three actors’ wonderful performances in other plays, but here their work is cringeworthy.
“Clyde’s” seems to have its roots in hokey television sitcoms—it could easily claim Gilligan’s Island as an ancestor—and not in Nottage’s other wonderful works, or any other sociologically relevant plays, which “Clyde’s” actually seems to be, at its undiscoverable heart. It’s fine for a serious drama to reach for laughs—even Shakespeare’s grimmest tragedies have hilarious moments. But what’s gone wrong here is that Clyde’s is going for the laughs first and hoping the messages come along for the ride. They don’t. Perhaps if the producers, who must have been thinking about box office draw when they brought “Crazy Eyes” into the production, wanted an edgy, OITNB character who was scary-tough, funny and has Broadway chops, they should’ve gone with Lea Delaria—she most certainly would’ve found her character’s soul while delighting audiences at the same time.
As a result of the Omicron Covid variant ripping through the ranks of Broadway, some shows of late have chosen to stream their live productions for audience members reluctant to go to the theater. Streaming is probably a perfect scenario for “Clyde’s”. A fair percentage of the audience guffaws at the shallow comedy, but that’s because it feels more like a sitcom than live theater. And so now you can, and probably will, grab the remote and change the channel.