American Fiesta, Vineyard Theatre, New York

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“You see it, you want it, you’ve got to have it,” announces Steven Tomlinson at the start of his solo show at off-Broadway’s Vineyard. Tomlinson is explicating the neurological basis behind the rabid shopper’s intense need to acquire objects.

While I cannot confer such must-have status on this 90-minute evening, I can report that Tomlinson’s analytical and autobiographical approaches to his lust for the Depression-era dinnerware known as Fiesta can be entertaining and gently uplifting.

American Fiesta neatly combines the two subjects Tomlinson teaches in his off-stage life: economics and theology. He has the social scientist’s need to break down behaviour by means of charts and graphs, which here are crisply presented through projection design. And he has the theologian’s need to find meaning in the desultory occurrences of daily living.

Tomlinson, who could pass for the actor John Lithgow’s better-looking younger brother, makes a great deal of the colours that now-vintage Fiestaware, which initially arrived on the market in 1936, comes in: red, blue, green, yellow and old ivory. He is especially concerned with the first two hues. They correspond to the colours that shorthand America’s political tendencies: red for the conservative Midwest and south,
blue for the progressive west and north-east.

A quintessential red/blue litmus test, same-sex marriage, is at the heart of American Fiesta. Tomlinson’s parents are uneasy with his plan to marry his male partner in 2004 in Vancouver. The family scenes are among the evening’s weakest: Tomlinson simply isn’t gifted enough vocally to keep all the characters memorably distinct.

Tomlinson knows that there’s an irrational exuberance in his and other Fiesta-philes’ online obsessiveness about plates and pitchers and mixing bowls: as a vendor at the annual Fiestaware convention in Pittsburgh puts it, “These are not balanced people.”

Dinnerware does not always bear gracefully the metaphorical weight Tomlinson places on it. Yet his expansive spirit, Mark Brokaw’s crisp direction and Neil Patel’s cabinet-heavy set, where Fiestaware perches in pristine pin spots, give the play a difficult-to-resist charm.
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