Don’t tell the line cooks at Clyde’s that a sandwich is simply the stuff of lunchboxes and hurried meals at office desks. For the ex-convict characters in “Clyde’s,” the funny and moving, if flawed, Lynn Nottage play directed by Candis C. Jones at Studio Theatre, a sandwich is much more.
They get no support from Clyde, whose menu ideals rise to ham-and-cheese on white. Worse, the ruthless businesswoman is a tyrannical sadist, ceaselessly bullying her staff: “I can get a fresh batch of nobodies to do your job,” she taunts at one point. It’s a characterization that, at least here, becomes monotonous without being fully revealing. One longs for more varied, satisfying insight into what makes Clyde tick.
Fortunately, the portrait of the striving-for-redemption line cooks is richer, and the sharp performances at Studio capitalize on that. Erstwhile bank robber Rafael (Brandon Ocasio, radiating spot-on verve and earnestness) has learned from Montrellous to aspire to sandwich sublimity. So has the vivacious but anxious Letitia (a terrific Kashayna Johnson), who’s mother to a child with a disability. With the arrival of a new employee, Jason (Quinn M. Johnson, persuasively intense), who has white supremacist tattoos, tensions rise.
Jason will be familiar to audiences who have seen “Sweat,” Nottage’s exploration of American industrial decline, which in 2017 made her the first woman to win two Pulitzer Prizes for drama. (Her Congo-set “Ruined” earned her first, in 2009.) In fact, “Clyde’s” is set in the same hard-up Pennsylvania community as “Sweat.” Amid “Clyde’s” droll, aioli-referencing banter, the play teases out its characters’ backstories in a way that reflects on some of the grim systemic problems that “Sweat” also pondered: America’s inadequate social safety net, a lack of second chances, capitalism’s facility for exacerbating racial, ethnic and class fault lines.
These somber notes register more clearly in Jones’s production than do the comic ones, which is not a criticism. (Marketing materials term the play a comedy.) Some terrific directorial touches linger, such as when three characters decant olive oil in sync, the golden lighting and jazzy instrumentals heightening the sense that the trio has achieved a state of flow. (Colin K. Bills is lighting designer; sound design and original music are by Matthew M. Nielson.)
Adding texture is Junghyun Georgia Lee’s wonderfully detailed restaurant-kitchen set. As if that weren’t enough naturalism, the playbill also lists “sensory consultants” Miriam Songster and Kate McLean, who contributed subtle diffused aromas, such as that of thyme and toasting bread. (D.C. audiences will appreciate that Ben’s Chili Bowl is listed as a “sandwich consultant” for this production.)
The vividness of the setting drives home the struggle of the ex-convicts — being a line cook at Clyde’s is no easy life — and underscores their achievements in turning sandwiches into hope.
Clyde’s, by Lynn Nottage. Directed by Candis C. Jones; costume design, Danielle Preston; props, Deb Thomas. 100 minutes. $50-$95. Through April 9 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. 202-332-3300. studiotheatre.org.