‘Clyde’s’ makes a tasty sandwich with relatable cast, poignant ideas

The Theatrical Outfit production follows workers at a greasy-spoon diner in the back of a truck stop.
Clyde (Tonia Jackson) and Montrellous (Geoffrey Williams) in Lynn Nottage's sharp, delicious "Clyde's," at Theatrical Outfit through April 7.

Credit: Photo by Casey Gardner Ford

Credit: Photo by Casey Gardner Ford

Clyde (Tonia Jackson) and Montrellous (Geoffrey Williams) in Lynn Nottage's sharp, delicious "Clyde's," at Theatrical Outfit through April 7.

This story was originally published by ArtsATL.

The battle for the perfect sandwich is as subjective and contentious as almost any debate — the banh mi, the gyro, the Reuben — we’ve all got our preference. But in the world of Lynn Nottage’s ”Clyde’s,” the ingredients of the sandwich and the infinite possibilities therein are a perfect delivery system to the nourishment of a good story.

And what a satisfying meal it is — especially in the delectable-to-the-last-bite Atlanta premiere production at Theatrical Outfit, running now through April 7. More often known for tragedies like “Ruined” and “Sweat,” here Nottage gives us a poignant comedy that doesn’t skirt around tougher realities.

“Clyde’s” premiered on Broadway in 2021, starring Emmy winners Uzo Aduba and Ron Cephas Jones, and it quickly became one of Nottage’s most popular works. By the end of 2022, it was the most staged play in America, and it’s easy to see why. There’s something satisfying about a hilarious and hopeful story that takes the starker truths of issues such as capitalism, the prison system, homelessness and substance use disorder then slathers them atop heaping slices of humor, humanity and resilience.

We follow the workers at a greasy-spoon diner in the back of a truck stop in Reading, Pennsylvania — incidentally, the setting of Nottage’s “Sweat,” which shares a universe and a character with this story. As a workplace, it’s a land of last resort for its employees, all of whom have been convicted of felonies, meaning they now have few prospects for better jobs, despite having already completed their sentences, a cruel reality of the U.S. labor market.

Jason (Burke Brown, left), a crossover character from Nottage's “Sweat,” works with Rafael (Marcello Audino) at the greasy-spoon diner in the back of a truck stop in Reading, Pennsylvania.

Credit: Photo by Casey Gardner Ford

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Credit: Photo by Casey Gardner Ford

The diner employees include Rafael (Marcello Audino), a funny and romantic addict in recovery; Letitia (Tequilla Whitfield), a struggling single mother of a child with a disability; and Montrellous (Geoffrey Williams), the quiet, wise leader of the group and a true chef at heart.

The dive of a café is owned by the eponymous Clyde, a manipulative, mercurial “boss from hell,” played by stage veteran Tonia Jackson in an absolute knockout performance. Mean, unpredictable and wearing a chip on her shoulder borne out of what we can only imagine are unspoken traumas, she shrugs off her employees’ pleas with her to be nice to them: “It’s a mean world. I’m just in it.”

One of the most laugh-out-loud moments is when Clyde proudly hauls in a couple of bags full of heavily discounted, rotting Chilean sea bass. Rafael tries to argue that the fish has gone bad. Out of pure stubbornness, she takes a big whiff, lets out an expletive, dry heaves, pauses, then vehemently doubles down: “It’s fine.”

Montrellous, the gentle counterpoint to Clyde’s abusive streak, is a man with a mysterious and likely horrendous past who now encourages his co-workers to think of the fine art of sandwich making as a kind of meditation — and Williams does lovely work. The scenes where he and Jackson are playing off one another feel like watching a ballet of temperaments between two world-class dancers.

But this is ultimately an ensemble piece through and through, and here, every single member of the dazzling supporting cast has a moment to shine. That’s evident in Jason (Burke Brown), a crossover character from Nottage’s “Sweat,” who shows up here having done the hard time for what he did in the previous play.

In less adroit hands than Nottage’s, all of these characters could be two-dimensional archetypes, there to convey a point rather than truth. But her writing gets deep into the marrow of the characters so much so that someone like Jason, who has a white supremacist tattoo on his face, drawing the justified ire of his co-workers, can transform from hard shell to teddy bear.

There’s also the way that Montrellous’ shoulders sink when Clyde admonishes him for dreaming of bigger things for the restaurant. “You know what you did,” she says coldly. There’s a mythology of how the so-called “sensei” of sandwiches was in prison; a kind of legend built up around his unknowability. Nottage excels in unreliable narrators and in giving us characters who may be talking about what’s in front of them but are telling us more about themselves as a result.

“Clyde’s" is "a land of last resort for its employees, all of whom have been convicted of felonies," critic Alexis Hauk writes. Still, Montrellous (Geoffrey Williams) is a chef at heart with dreams of bigger things for the restaurant.

Credit: Photo by Casey Gardner Ford

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Credit: Photo by Casey Gardner Ford

There’s also a through line in Nottage’s work in taking the industry her story takes place in and mining it for surprisingly potent metaphors. She did that with the lens of clothing design, in the moving “Intimate Apparel,” produced at Actor’s Express a few years ago.

Food is no exception in this show, coming to represent everything from redemption to difficult childhoods. As Clyde says at one point of her upbringing: “My mom was like peanut brittle — sweet and salty, and I was never sure if I actually liked her or not.”

One of the more delightful recurring motifs is how characters strive to build their own masterpiece sandwich based on bold new ingredients. Montrellous peppers them with advice to “surprise yourself with (an ingredient) that shouldn’t work, that pulls it all together,” and that the first bite should “be an invitation you can’t refuse.”

The team’s elaborate descriptions of these imagined French dips and lobster rolls with new herb and spice combinations stand in direct contrast to the actual items on the menu at Clyde’s — like plain ham and cheese on white bread. And like life.

A few more points of praise for this show.

The scenic design by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay is a beautiful testament to creativity and expert attention to detail: little touches like a Steelers sticker appended to a bulletin board and an apron slung roughly on one of the coat hangers when the show kicks off. And a standing ovation is owed for the stage magic of crafting an operational kitchen where the characters frequently open drawers for ingredients and actively prepare meals as they talk, laugh and argue.

All the while, director January LaVoy deftly keeps the scenes shifting and the tables turning at a breathtaking pace, slowing things down when needed, only to ramp them up again in perfect timing with the smart dialogue. Moments of seriousness get punctuated and punctured by sharp comedy, often delivered by Rafael and Tish, slicing and dicing each moment with their animated reactions. It’s a master class in comic timing all around.

Take my advice: Go in hungry. Come out full.



Through April 7. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. $15-$50. Theatrical Outfit, Balzer Theater at Herren’s, 84 Luckie St., Atlanta. 678-528-1500, theatricaloutfit.org


Alexis Hauk has written and edited for numerous newspapers, alt-weeklies, trade publications and national magazines, including Time, The Atlantic, Mental Floss, Uproxx and Washingtonian. Having grown up in Decatur, Alexis returned to Atlanta in 2018 after a decade living in Boston, Washington, D.C., New York City and Los Angeles. By day, she works in health communications. By night, she enjoys covering the arts and being Batman.

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