Opening with a quick glance of a gruesome scene on Christmas Eve, Magic Theatre’s American premiere of Penelope Skinner’s Fred’s Diner retreats a few days earlier to travel a trail full of surprises, twists, and turns -- eventually to return to this scene in the end. The setting is Erik Flatmo’s deliciously authentic 1950’s style, American diner on an England roadside -- complete with red, leather booths and stools at the counter; a blackboard menu featuring the likes of “Chunky Monkey;” and a jukebox that plays Elvis and Bing (after the required coin and firm smack with a fist). As we flash back a few days, on the surface all seems typical for a greasy-spoon hang-out where cappuccinos are made with whipped cream and three waitresses (Heather, Chloe, Melissa) in starched pink with white aprons kibbutz, joke, and complain among themselves and with their gregarious, good-guy boss and owner, Fred. That all may not be quite as it appears is tipped off by an aside of one waitress to another, “Don’t you ever think it is sad that this is not really America and it’s not really the 50’s?” The happy surface with holiday lights and Advent calendar full of chocolate, we begin to learn, hides sexist undercurrents, troubled histories, and unspoken ugliness. As the New Year approaches, dreams for new beginnings and better lives are on the minds of each character; but the possibilities of fruition become more and more in question as storms of both snow and tangled lives darken the skies.
The diner’s namesake and owner, Fred, greets customers as old friends, expects a tight ship run by his waitresses, and likes to sneak out at night for some holiday cheer with his pals. Donald Sage Mackay is outstanding in convincing us that Fred is friend to all with big smile and welcoming nature, an air of mischievous play with his staff, and a fatherly deep adoration for his waitress and student daughter, Melissa. But his Fred’s waters run deep; and there is murkiness in their depths that Mr. Mackay masterfully and increasingly unveils in snide remarks, sexist biases, and sudden outbursts.
Julia McNeal is the older, gnarly, don’t-screw-with-me waitress Heather, hardened by years in prison for rising up against an abusive husband. Her outer, rough side comes out most often when fellow waitress Chloe is habitually late or averts “toilet duty” or when a docile, older, Indian patron (Terry Lamb as Sunny both in name and disposition) persists in sweet talk and asking yet again for a date. On the other side, her otherwise icy heart melts into motherly attention and encouragement whenever motherless Melissa is in the room. Ms. McNeal never falters in capturing just the right look, mannerism, stance, or vocal attitude to build a Heather who is totally authentic and believable even as her decisions and choices become more difficult due to circumstances beyond her control.
With a head of pink hair extensions, slim and beautiful Chloe has just come back from a gap year in Thailand and returns to the diner with a throw-caution-to-the-wind attitude, a love to needle Heather, and a desire to advance herself so she can escape again out of the England she does not particularly like. Jessi Campbell beep-bops around the diner, tossing her head with flair both to flirt with Fred and to irritate Heather. Her Chloe is full of mischief (terrorizing a shy diner not to order unhealthy white bread on his bacon sandwich) but also always has a word of advice and encouragement for the younger Melissa (“You can’t be a virgin that stays at home and lives with your dad … You’ll stick out at uni [university] like a sore thumb.”). Ms. Campbell brings a wide range of proven acting skills to her Chloe.
As daughter and aspiring-for-Oxford Melissa (nervously awaiting her notification letter), Katharine Chin faces a part that perhaps has the most difficult challenges of the script. Her loyalty to an over-protective/possessive dad seems unwavering and her ambition to do ‘justice’ in the world as a lawyer appears genuine. However, her stubborn refusal to consider a back-up plan to Oxford and her occasional, vitriolic bursts of anger directed at her father are puzzling and even startling. Maneuvering the ecstatic hopes of a bright future bumping up against some inner, unknown turmoil requires an acting maturity that sometimes Ms. Chin achieves and at other times, just misses. There is a muteness to some reactions and a failing to grab a moment and milk it to the last drop that keeps her performance quite from rising to the heights of the rest of this overall, excellent ensemble.
What makes Fred’s Diner an evening worthy of seeing is this cast with its overall ranges and depths of character portrayal. Where the evening falls a bit flat and short is in the script itself. The first act frankly becomes a bit laborious as back-and-forth chitchat, numerous short scenes, and too many minutes without much story progression bog it down (as witnessed by several nodding heads around me). Also, it is unclear to me why the flashback. If the opening scene were eliminated, the unfolding clues alone of what lurks beneath the holiday glitter might make the play even more intriguing and allow an ending even more profound. I actually had long figured out what was probably going to happen because the opening scene made me suspicious of the obvious and predictive of the unexpected.
Where Ms. Skinner’s script and Loretta Greco’s direction do succeed is highlighting how even the most modest dreams of these women can face incredible hurdles in a world where, as Melissa notes, “Men are bigger and stronger and that’s why they always win.” A deserved promotion, a chance to be seen as someone who is capable of more than sexy flirting, and a release to go discover new worlds in the walls of a university are all these women really want. These are not big, inflated dreams of American fantasy. These are everyday hopes in an everyday diner of everyday people. But something is not so everyday in Fred’s Diner, and a trip to Magic Theatre will lead to the disturbing truths.
Rating: 3 E’s
Fred’s Diner continues through October 11 at Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at http://magictheatre.org/season/freds-diner or by calling the box office at (415) 441-8822.