Theater review: ‘Mixed Fandango’ by Different Strokes!

TALKING TURKEY: Clockwise from left, David Mycoff, Phillipe Coquet, Molly Graves, Aaron Ybarra, Jason Williams and Emmalie Handley are Thanksgiving bound in 'Mixed Fandango' by Different Srokes! Performing Arts Collective. Photo by Jenn McCormack

Just in time for Thanksgiving, Different Strokes! Performing Arts Collective serves up Mixed Fandango, a new romantic comedy by Asheville playwright Travis Lowe about three Baltimore couples navigating a Turkey Day fraught with mishaps. It runs through Saturday, Nov. 23, at the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts’ Tina McGuire Theater.

Madison and Dylan are newlyweds in their first house. She’s anxiously cooking her first turkey for family arriving from across the country. He’s anxiously looking for bolts to fix a wonky toilet seat.

Longtime couple Ray and Luis have taken a break from their usual big dinner with friends. Now Ray is missing the party. Luis is missing his family in Portugal. They’re both missing pie.

Recently widowed Roger has hired his favorite Uber driver, Emily, to take him to Schultz’s crab house for what looks to be a lonely meal. A detour and a dance by a racetrack, however, will change all that.

But the playwright has more than farce in his playbook. The pleasure of this play is the crafty way Lowe choreographs these couples out of their bubbles and mixes them up in the lively, flirtatious dance that the title suggests. His canniest ploy is a new technique this reviewer has never seen before, a kind of live-theater split-screen showing different couples at different places at different times in different combinations. No camera tricks required. To say more would spoil the fun.

Stephanie Hickling Beckman, the play’s director and the founder of Different Strokes, meets the challenge of this Rubik’s cube of a script. She keeps her actors moving briskly in a game of musical chairs, though we may not always be clear about who has landed where.

She has gathered an engaging cast: Emmalie Handley and Jason Williams as Madison and Dylan, Molly Graves and Aaron Ybarra as Emily and Roger and David Mycoff and Phillipe Andre Coquet as Ray and Luis.

As of opening night, Handley’s Madison was not as frantic about her family’s impending arrival as her words suggested. And you may wonder why she has so little prep to do for this big dinner. You may also be confused by Laura Lowe’s setting, which  puts the oven right behind the living room sofa.

Handley and Williams were not comfortable with the physical playfulness of newlyweds in their first scene together, but by the second act they had found their spark. When they stopped their car to talk suggestively about a tub of whipped cream and a radical organic battery (Dylan is a chemist), Handley’s throaty giggle was especially telling.

Graves’ Uber-driving Emily, a philosophy graduate who never made it much past Camus, radiates the sweetness and the sass that are attracting Ybarra’s Roger. And his wide, near-constant grin is as winning as his belief that all the people he meets are good.

Mycoff and Coquet as Ray and Luis are both affectionate and snippy. Their small gestures and attitudes — Ray’s throwaway caressing of Luis’s bald head, the love-light shining in Luis’s eyes — give the playwright’s words of love their real meaning.

Hickling Beckman believes theater can change hearts and minds and in Mixed Fandango she sometimes lets the play’s seriousness overshadow its silliness. Nevertheless, she sends us out humming “Love Is All You Need.” If she can push the play’s other message, “Love Can Make You Stupid,” Different Strokes has a holiday hit.

WHAT: Mixed Fandango
WHERE: Wortham Center, 18 Biltmore Ave., differentstrokespac.org
WHEN: Through Saturday, Nov. 23. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. $16.20-$18

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About Arnold Wengrow
Arnold Wengrow was the founding artistic director of the Theatre of the University of North Carolina at Asheville in 1970 and retired as professor emeritus of drama in 1998. He is the author of "The Designs of Santo Loquasto," published by the United States Institute for Theatre Technology.

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