Uzo Aduba’s Devil Doesn’t Need Prada

The Oscars, Emmys and Tonys recognize the best actors and best directors. As a rule, these winners work with the best materials. Maybe “better” should mean that actor or director who takes flawed or fragile material and turns it into something worth watching. It’s the miracle that director Kate Whoriskey performs with Lynn Nottage’s sketchy new play, “Clyde’s,” which debuted at Second Stage’s Helen Hayes Theater on Tuesday.

What Whoriskey’s flashy direction can’t hide is how much Nottage borrows from a 2019 food comedy presented Off Broadway at MCC. In Theresa Rebeck’s “Seared”, Raul Esparza’s chef refused to compromise his duck confit cassoulet and other dishes to please the unsophisticated palate of any VIP. This is essentially the story of “Clyde’s”, with two very important changes. Nottage puts his 100-minute comedy in a restaurant that doesn’t cater to New York’s elite but truckers, and the kitchen is made up of ex-inmates. This plot signals the other big difference: “Clyde’s” touches on an important subject, the vicious revolving door of the American jail system. The four characters who throw the mayonnaise and mustard can’t leave the hell of Clyde’s restaurant, or his eponymous owner will report them to a parole officer.

Rebeck wrote a very nuanced villain for “Seared”, and at MCC, Krysta Rodriguez played it with sly nonchalance. To describe Nottage’s villain as a bulldozer is to insult Caterpillar. She’s a woman called Clyde, and she’s literally Satan. As effectively played by the curvy Uzo Aduba, Clyde is also an R. Crumb cartoon coming to life. In a directorial twist that’s by far the production’s best running gag, Aduba changes more costumes than Jeanna de Waal in “Diana,” and even more delightfully, Clyde’s many outrageous outfits are originals (by the talented Jennifer Moeller), not Dior or Stambolian fakes.

Notation and Rebeck both share this most fundamental talent as a playwright: at their best, they deliver dialogues that sizzle to the ear. Nottage is particularly good at quarrels, which is not lacking among her sandwich makers. Letitia (Kara Young), the recovering single mother, and Rafael (Reza Salazar), the self-proclaimed “deputy” of the BLT, expect and are eager to do battle immediately with Jason, the new employee (Edmund Donovan) whose Les Prison gang tattoos and contempt for salmonella are topics # 1 and 2. Only Montrellous (Ron Cephas Jones), who finds both art and salvation among cilantro, can bring peace to this rowdy group. Jones, who works with much cheaper ingredients, is just as determined to find culinary perfection as Esparza was in the Rebeck play.

“Clyde’s” is a battle between the saint and Satan. Rather than treating this extreme contrast as a flaw, Whoriskey embraces it to bring magical realism to the production. Performance, however, is never as crisp as it was during those early chopping board feuds. Only Aduba is able to build on her horrible first impression, and that’s because the heck, again, gets all the best jokes, not to mention the tailoring that would make Kyrsten Sinema blush.

After their first bitchy sessions, the four short-lived cooks are given the less enviable task of telling each other how they ended up in prison. After a few of these confessions, only the repeated interruptions of Aduba’s Clyde can restore the narrative momentum. As you might expect, the story of Montrellous incarceration is left to last, and it’s a huge one. He almost asks the Pope to begin the process of beatification.

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