Review: At Madison’s Forward Theater, the Cooks Are Still Serving Time at Clyde’s


At first glance, one may have trouble seeing the beauty in Clyde’s, penned by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage. In the commercial kitchen of a truck stop diner, life seems very ordinary. One of the cooks, Montrellous (Dimonte Henning) has crafted what he considers to be an almost-perfect sandwich. As his boss, Clyde (Dana Pellebon), strides in, he offers her a taste. She repeatedly refuses to sample his creation, and eventually stubs her cigarette into the sandwich. Montrellous does not seem surprised by this rudeness. He has worked here long enough to know Clyde’s ways.

The Wisconsin premiere of Clyde’s is playing at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts, produced by Forward Theater, an Equity theater company named for the state motto: Forward. This production of Clyde’s is a not-to-be-missed experience in the hands of director Jake Penner and his captivating cast.

The show was a critical hit when it opened on Broadway in November 2021, and it was nominated for five Tony awards. Clyde’s consists of five actors and one set, which makes it budget-friendly for regional theater companies around the country. Goodman Theatre in Chicago staged it last year. Last season, Clyde’s was the most-produced play in America. So far, it may lead the pack for the current season as well.

Thankfully, the Overture Center’s Playhouse in Madison provides the perfect setting for Nottage’s comedy. It has a thrust stage and intimate seating, which brings the audience close to the onstage action. The meticulously crafted set (by Keith Pitts) recreates an exact replica of what one would expect to see in such a setting, expertly lit by designer Jason Fassl and containing a zillion kitchen-oriented props (by Pam Miles).

Ronald Román-Meléndez plays Rafael. Photo by Ross Zentner.

Make no mistake: there are numerous sandwiches being created in Clyde’s (the pre-show announcement thanks a local grocery store for supplying all the lettuce, cheese slices, bread, mayonnaise, and so forth). However, instead of the elaborate creations the cooks dream of, much of the fare is very standard (turkey and cheese, tuna salad, etc.).

Clyde’s restaurant is a place where none of the cooks want to be, but they have little choice. They have all served time (as has Clyde herself), and found out the hard way that most employers are leery about hiring felons. So they congregate at Clyde’s, where they dish out sandwiches and hope for better days ahead.

Montrellus (beautifully underplayed by one of Milwaukee’s best-known actors, Dimonte Henning), could easily steal the show with his humorous recitations of the “ultimate sandwich.” But he leaves room aplenty for the rest of the crew, which includes Rafael, a talented grill cook, and Letitia, the young mother of a special-needs child who needs numerous medications. In the hands of Ronald Román-Meléndez and Nadja Simmonds, they play a credible romantic duo. Rafael wants nothing more than to be her hero. Tragically, she cannot imagine a partner who would treat her well.

Although Clyde’s has many laugh-out-loud moments, its tragic side is visible, too. Social issues such as prison life, homelessness, poverty, dysfunctional families and drugs are discussed. It’s clear that Letitia was trapped in an abusive relationship, one that she still relies on to take care of her child while she works (against the advice of child protection authorities).

During the course of the play, we learn of the bumbled crimes the characters have committed. This includes robbing a bank with a bb-gun, and a pharmacy raid to acquire a child’s expensive medications. Letitia, the pharmacy thief, thought she would grab a few extra oxycodone pills to sell on the street. This leads to her incarceration. One of the cooks even took the rap for a family member who was set-up by his peers.

Nadja Simmonds plays Letitia. Photo by Ross Zentner.

As sympathetic as these ne’er-do-well characters are, we are also confronted by the institutional hardness of life, as represented by Clyde. She’s a tough nut, to be sure, and one who doesn’t soften during the course of the 95-minute play. As played by Dana Pellebon, Clyde dresses in a series of skin-tight, no-nonsense outfits ranging from an ensemble that features leopard print stilettos, and another with black leather pants. She’s the boss no one wants to work for, and her hirelings are afraid to confront her. As the restaurant’s server, Clyde appears regularly with another food order (which are comically unreadable to the cooks). None of them is brave enough to inquire what is written down. They do their best to comply with her wishes.

When she struts into the kitchen, Clyde reminds them often that they are fortunate to have this job. She calls them “morons” and constantly admonishes them. This creates a sense of kinship among the cooks. Jason, a newcomer to their team, is warily regarded at first. The others try to push him around to see what he’s made of. Jason (Sean Langenecker) sports many gang-related tattoos on his face and neck, which are regarded suspiciously by Letitia. She is a Black woman who is leery of Jason’s white supremacist-inspired tattoos. Jason tells her that he had been forced to acquire them.

Jason shows no ill will towards Letitia or anyone else in the kitchen. Although he looks tough, we learn that he has a sensitive side as well. When they play their imaginary “let's make up a sandwich” game, Jason eventually succeeds in “creating” something delectable. When he does, the other cooks cheer. Jason’s big grin lights up the stage. Langenecker makes effective choices in slowly revealing his character, as he becomes part of the “glue” that holds this team together.

The playwright explores a number of threads in the play that she doesn’t fully develop. In this way, the play should be taken as a “slice of life.” For instance, Montrellous dreams of developing the place into a gourmet bistro. Later on, Clyde indicates that her restaurant operation is owned and operated by businessmen who may be thugs. Also, the romance between Rafael and Letitia doesn’t really take root, despite the fact they share a brief embrace.

Even the finale is somewhat ambiguous. One starts to wonder if Clyde’s is some type of purgatory, or perhaps a living hell that must be endured until one cannot? Playwright Lynn Nottage is more interested in posing questions than answering them, so it is up to the audience to decide how all these aspects play out. There’s even a brief hint of mystical forces in the otherwise reality-grounded script.

Clyde’s is a beautifully written, fascinating character study, and it will surely grip audience’s attentions for years to come. Forward Theater does an excellent job in presenting this play. They keep the audience on the edge of their seats, wondering what will come next.

Clyde’s by Forward Theater continues at the Overture Center, 201 State St., Madison, Wis., through November 19. Running time is 95 minutes with no intermission. For tickets and more information on this and other Forward productions, call 608-258-4141 or visit forwardtheater.com.

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Anne Siegel

Anne Siegel is a Milwaukee-based writer and theater critic; she's a former member of the American Theatre Critics Association, where she served for more than 30 years. Anne covers a wide range of Milwaukee theater for the city’s alternative newspaper. Her work also appears on several theater-related websites, including Third Coast Review.