Louis Reyes McWilliams (Jason), Harold Surratt (Montrellous), and April Nixon (Clyde) in Lynn Nottage’sTony Award-nominated play Clyde’s, now playing at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Credit: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Rep

Lynn Nottage’s Tony Award-nominated human comedy is set in Clyde’s diner, where formerly incarcerated cooks make ordinary sandwiches while dreaming of creating superb, unique ones. And despite their conversations that touch on drugs, homelessness, and prison life and its arduous aftershocks, they win us over with their resilience, strength and bright humor.

As played by an excellent cast of multiracial felons is Rafael (Wesley Guimarães), the sweet Latino grill man who, in a drugged haze, tried to rob a bank with a BB gun. There’s Leticia (Cyndii Johnson), a plucky young African American mother of a disabled child who stole medication for her daughter but also grabbed “some oxy and addy to sell on the side.” And Montrellous (Harold Surratt) is the elderly African American wise man of the kitchen, “like a Buddha,” Rafael says, “if he’d grown up in the hood.” You’ll have to see Clyde’s to learn Montrellous’ heartwarming back story. White supremacist-tatted Jason (Louis Reyes McWilliams) was imprisoned for committing a violent assault. (The same character, Jason, appeared in Nottage’s drama Sweat [ACT, 2018], in which he committed the crime.)

The cooks’ nemesis is Clyde (April Nixon), the hard-hearted, mean-spirited boss-lady who bursts in and out of the kitchen spewing demoralizing insults to the staff while sashaying around in a different skin-tight outfit and wig in each appearance (Karen Perry, Costume Design). She, too, served time as the result of an interaction with a man who “isn’t around to try” to hurt her again. But she shows no empathy for her employees.

Cyndii Johnson (Letitia) and Wesley Guimarães (Rafael) in Lynn Nottage’s Tony Award-nominated play Clyde’s, now at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Credit: Muriel Steinke/Berkeley Rep

Under the able direction of Taylor Reynolds and with a realistic kitchen set (Wilson Chin, Scenic Design), it is fun to watch the staff make sandwiches as they share their life stories amid amusing banter. Still, I wondered exactly where the play was going. At first, the entrance of new-guy Jason seemed like it would have a dramatic arc, but he soon settles down. There was a bit of a romance between two cooks, but that was just an interlude.

No, Clyde’s is primarily the quest to create the perfect sandwich by people who are forced to prepare ordinary fare day after day. Like most of us, they wish to add a creative spark to their work, and so they dream of the most iconic hand-held meal they can imagine. And some of them sound delicious!   

Nottage is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for Ruined (2009) and Sweat (2017), the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, and was included in Time magazine’s 2019 list of the 100 Most Influential People. And Clyde’s will be the most-produced play in the country this season, with at least 11 productions.

So, I was hoping for perfection, like the ultimate taste sensation of a sublime sandwich. Perhaps my super-high expectations for Clyde’s were a bit unrealistic. I would rate the play as a very good BLT, full of contrasts, crunch, with lots of flavor. And that’s much better than many theater experiences, which are more like tuna sandwiches, filling yet predictable.

I enjoyed Clyde’s as a humorous slice of life, a chance to see some appealing, thought-provoking workers trying to make the best of their lives with much less going for them than the average Berkeleyite.     

A co-production with Huntington Theatre Company, Clyde’s, runs through Sunday, Feb. 26, at Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. It’s approximately 90 minutes with no intermission. Proof of vaccination and mask-wearing is required. Tickets $30-$135, subject to change, can be purchased online at www.berkeleyrep.org  or by phone at 510-647-2949.

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...