When is a sandwich more than a sandwich? 

When it becomes a symbol of redemption, aspiration and hope, as in Lynn Nottage’s latest play, “Clyde’s,” a lively and funny if sometimes ham-handed — or should I say ham-on-rye-handed? — comedy-drama at the Helen Hayes Theater.

The setting is the titular truck stop diner on a lonely stretch of road in Pennsylvania. The impeccably detailed set, by Takeshi Kata, depicts the small kitchen, just short of being cramped, and the window into the restaurant where orders are given and fulfilled. 

Often looming large through that window is the glowering visage of the proprietor, Clyde, played by the formidable Uzo Aduba, an Emmy winner for “Orange Is the New Black.” More often, Clyde is storming around the kitchen, a volcano of irritation, contempt and occasionally violent rage aimed at her unfortunate employees. (Even her brightly colored, form-fitting costumes, by Jennifer Moeller, are somehow aggressive, suggesting a superhero who has gone over to the dark side.) Thanks to the volatile proprietor, Clyde’s is the textbook definition of a toxic work environment – especially since Clyde is never without a cigarette dangling from lip or finger, despite the No Smoking sign in the kitchen. 

And yet, as Clyde knows, and takes taunting pleasure in reminding her workers, they have little choice but to work there. All are ex-convicts — as is she — and job opportunities in Pennsylvania for ex-cons are presumably not abundant. 

As the play opens, the senior kitchen staff member, Montrellous, played by Ron Cephas Jones, has just finished telling Clyde the history of his incarceration (we hear it later), to which she responds with a shrugging scorn: “I don’t do pity.” Equally pointedly — and more symbolically — she rejects the grilled cheese sandwich with garlic butter lovingly prepared by Montrellous. “You know I don’t eat that crap,” she snaps. To Clyde, garnish is a dirty word. 

The other members of the staff are more sympathetic to Montrellous’s culinary explorations; in fact they quietly revere him, and are enticed into concocting recipes for unusual sandwiches, hoping to win his approval. The moments in which these sandwiches are presented or discussed are often charged with dramatic intensity, with the lighting (by Christopher Akerlind) shifting to suggest a move into another, more spiritually heightened dimension. Kate Whoriskey, who also directed both of Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, “Ruined” and “Sweat,” doesn’t shy away from underscoring the play’s stylized aspects. 

Already under Montrellous’s sage-like spell as the play begins are Letitia (Kara Young), a single mother in her 20s who did her time after shoplifting desperately needed necessities for her daughter, born with health problems (unhappily Letitia also grabbed some prescription pills to sell). Also enthusiastically entering the fancy-sandwich sweepstakes is Rafael (Reza Salazar), a Latino man whose fiery temperament and impassioned romantic ardor for Letitia skirts stereotype. 

The new member of the crew stokes tension in the kitchen. Jason (Edmund Donovan), the only white staffer, is festooned with racist-tinged tattoos that make him a target of suspicion. They also may put him in the cross-hairs of Clyde’s abuse, which includes taunting sexual aggression. Harassment comes in more flavors than there are approved condiments on the shelves at Clyde’s. 

Nevertheless, the sullen Jason warms to the friendly environment engendered among the crew by having a common enemy in Clyde. He, too, begins to experiment with exotic sandwich recipes. The camaraderie among the kitchen workers, marked by comic raillery and frequent gibes at their employer, gives the play a jovial warmth. 

And the performances are impeccable, with Young imbuing Letitia with spirited liveliness and an underlying sensitivity, matched by that of Salazar’s Rafael, whose attempts to woo her provide one of the unfortunately predictable subplots.

Donovan movingly reveals how Jason, at first an embittered cipher, gradually opens up, disclosing (also predictably) that he regrets the youthful anger and ignorance that led him down a dark path from which he is trying to claw his way back. And Cephas Jones could hardly be better cast as the calm, supportive presiding spirit of Clyde’s, his slender but somehow towering presence and voice like rich molasses imbuing the character with almost sacerdotal dignity. 

Montrellous is a stark contrast to Clyde, whom Aduba charges with a fulminating hostility that almost never abates – as the other characters do, you almost flinch whenever she enters. It is perhaps admirable that Nottage and Aduba refuse to allow any hint of sentimentality to creep into the character, but there’s also something inhuman about her eventually monotonous cruelty. (A moment of flashy pyrotechnics suggests that she may, in fact, be not really human.)

For the most part Nottage establishes her characters and their troubled pasts and uncertain futures economically and with compassionate nuance. But “Clyde’s” nevertheless also feels schematic, as scenes of confrontation with Clyde (who, incongruously, appears to the both proprietor and the only front-of-house worker) alternate with scenes of communal sandwich-making that bind the kitchen gang together. At regular intervals, we hear revelations about just how the characters ended up behind bars. 

The most momentous and elaborately told of these confessions comes, naturally, from Montrellous. Unfortunately, it’s easy to guess halfway through his tale of a brother caught up in a drug deal how the story is going to end, which makes the ultimate revelation something of an anticlimax. 

A somewhat abrupt ending arrives shortly after Montrellous tells his story, when Clyde storms into the kitchen spewing abuse, yet again, and finds her workers, inspired by what they have just heard, for once in no mood to put up with her maliciousness. They have collectively and individually come to realize that they need to make a decision: either live under her oppressive regime indefinitely, or come up with a new recipe for their futures.

“Clyde’s” opened at the Helen Hayes Theater on Nov. 23, 2021. 

Review Photo: Joan Marcus

Producers: Second Stage Theater.

Creative: Written by Lynn Nottage; Original Music by Justin Hicks; Directed by Kate Whoriskey; Scenic Design by Takeshi Kata; Costume Design by Jennifer Moeller; Lighting Design by Christopher Akerlind; Sound Design by Justin Ellington. 

Cast: Uzo Aduba, Edmund Donovan, Ron Cephas Jones, Reza Salazar and Kara Young.