One could imagine any of these being crowned best play at the next Tonys: That’s how deep the 2021-22 field is, and we are only five months into the season that started when “Springsteen on Broadway” welcomed theatergoers back on June 26. Add to all these the revival, or rather the 66-year delayed Broadway debut, of Alice Childress’s magnificent “Trouble in Mind,” in a superb staging by director Charles Randolph-Wright. And you have a case for a remarkable rollout of Broadway prose.
On this occasion the subject is Nottage and her own remarkable run. The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner is already a Broadway veteran, with the 2017 staging of her prizewinning “Sweat.” Nottage is a playwright of authentic devotion to the stage who never stops repledging her faith; she’s also written the book for the forthcoming Michael Jackson jukebox musical, “MJ,” which begins Broadway performances next month. There’s something uniquely exhilarating these days about a career as prolific and engaged as Nottage’s. She’s so theater-centric that she harks back to an older tradition.
In “Clyde’s,” she fuses her storytelling once again to a social issue desperately in need of illumination — this time, the trajectories of average people after their release from prison. Set near Reading, Pa., like “Sweat,” which is a tale of the racism arising in a declining union town, “Clyde’s” introduces us to a cafe of last resort. It’s the domain of Uzo Aduba’s Clyde, a glorious creation, an eatery owner of such foul temper she makes culinary martinet Gordon Ramsay seem like a veritable Mr. Rogers.
Aduba, under the intuitively resourceful direction of Kate Whoriskey in this Second Stage production at the Helen Hayes Theatre, has been costumed hilariously in a never-ending series of skintight outfits by designer Jennifer Moeller. You get the impression that every extra penny in the till of this roadside dive is poured into Clyde’s wildly indulgent wardrobe.
The quick-change mechanics mean that each time Aduba pops up at the kitchen’s pass-through window, her appearance evolves — even if her bullying character doesn’t. “Clyde’s” is about the economic vise on the formerly incarcerated, in this case, the diner’s cooks, all of whom are holding on for dear life to their jobs in Clyde’s kitchen. The vivacity of “Clyde’s” springs from the richness of personality with which each of the characters is infused: Kara Young’s spiky Letitia; Reza Salazar’s intense Rafael; Ron Cephas Jones’s meditative Montrellous; and Edmund Donovan’s tough-and-soft Jason.
Only tangentially, and yet crucially, does “Clyde’s” deal with the circumstances that sent each of them to prison. Rap sheets detail an incident, not a life. Their priorities are the here-and-now in the cafe; survival and aspiration preoccupy them in set designer Takeshi Kata’s flavorful evocation of the kitchen, in which they become obsessed with making the perfect sandwich.
A wonderful distillation of that basic necessity of life — purpose in work — comes in an observation by the serenely magnetic Jones about sandwiches. He calls them the “most democratic” of foods, in that pieces of bread can provide the carbohydrate enclosures for ingredients as exotic as one would wish. One cold cut, one vote. You can’t help but feel a pang as the cooks pull out the rolls and whole wheat and muse about filling orders with halloumi cheeses and sprigs of thyme — when all Clyde is demanding are tunas on rye.
What melts away as you get to know the characters are the monumental stigmas attached to jail time. Donovan’s Jason is inked to the max with prison tats, some of them racist symbols, but the story behind them reveals something unexpected. Letitia, here called Tish, in Young’s smashingly vibrant turn, is all adolescent energy and adult anxiety, the latter brought on as a single mother caring for a sick child. Salazar’s hyper Rafael needs an emotional home for his nurturing instincts, as an alternative to his weakness for drugs.
Aduba, in one of the best roles of her career, swans in and out of the kitchen, her Clyde never letting the employees forget her power over them. She’s their new matron, and they have traded one kind of prison for another. Like the sandwiches they fuss over, though, Nottage wants us to know that their fates remain in their own hands. The fun of “Clyde’s” is waiting to see which way that realization cuts.
Clyde’s, by Lynn Nottage. Directed by Kate Whoriskey. Set, Takeshi Kata; costumes, Jennifer Moeller; lighting, Christopher Akerlind; sound, Justin Ellington. About 1 hour 40 minutes. $59-$199. At the Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 W. 44th St., New York. 2st.com.