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Denizens of ‘Fred’s Diner’ are wonderfully human

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Katharine Chin, left, and Jessi Campbell appear in Magic Theatre’s engaging production of “Fred’s Diner.“ (Courtesy Jennifer Reiley)

In “Fred’s Diner,” each of the three women working long hours in dead-end jobs in this roadside diner cherishes hopes for the future.

So do the diner’s two regular customers.

The play, by acclaimed British playwright Penelope Skinner, is receiving its American premiere at the Magic Theatre, and it crackles with sharp dialogue, an affecting contemporary story and multi-faceted characters.

It’s also notable for a strong ensemble, and for Loretta Greco’s fine-tuned and insightful direction.

Free-spirited Chloe (a saucy Jessi Campbell) recently has returned to the diner from travels abroad and wants to make enough money to go back to Thailand.

Heather (a fierce Julia McNeal), the tough, abrasive, uneducated oldest waitress, is recently released from the slammer; she aspires to be promoted to “manageress.”

However, owner Fred (Donald Sage Mackay, in a complex portrayal of a deceptively amiable alcoholic) plans to hire a younger, more attractive woman for the job.

The youngest waitress, pretty Melissa (Katharine Chin, sweet and steely), who’s Fred’s daughter, has applied to Oxford–she wants to be a lawyer—and is anxiously awaiting what she hopes is a letter of acceptance.

The women have deeper, less easily articulated desires and fears as well.

Funny and at times painful, the drama begins with a single, shocking image and proceeds from there at just the right steady, not too rushed pace, revealing layers and layers of emotional depth.

The diner itself is, of all things, 1950s American-themed. Erik Flatmo’s wonderfully detailed set has red vinyl stools and plastic ketchup bottles and a jukebox that plays Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly and other rock’n’roll of the era. It’s several days before Christmas, so tacky decorations add to the retro atmosphere.

The contrast between the fantasy mid-century America that the diner purports to represent, and the blatant sexism that actually existed back then, and that these women face as well, is starkly theatrical.

Over the course of more than two hours, we begin to know the characters just as they begin to know themselves and see their situations in new ways. That includes the two customers: loquacious, Indian-born Sunny (a guileless, likable Terry Lamb), the middle-aged man who’s attracted to the dismissive Heather; and Greg (an equally likable Nick Day), a young man who’s utterly lost.

And as we get to know them, we feel for them — even, briefly, for the appalling Fred — thanks to the empathetic portrayals and Greco’s sensitive direction.

REVIEW

Fred’s Diner
Where: Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; closes Oct. 11
Tickets: $20 to $60
Contact: (415) 441-8822, www.magictheatre.org

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