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American Fiesta

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Steven Tomlinson
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Red, Blue, Green, Yellow, Old Ivory. The dynamic Depression dinnerware known as Fiesta originated in 1936 in these striking colors, and stand out yet today as vibrant reminders of how joy - however mass-manufactured - can sometimes emerge from sorrow. Though so sought-after today that its cultlike collectors prowl the Internet in search of errant pieces, Fiesta seems more powerful and charismatic than ever in the new show at the Vineyard Theatre in which it's starring, American Fiesta.

The dozens of plates, bowls, and cups that have been strategically placed all about Neil Patel's loving, living-room-showplace set and lit with unerring exactitude by David Lander shimmer with an unusually beguiling stage presence. Even if you have trouble distinguishing between a dinner plate and a salad plate, the dishes' gleaming, almost hypnotic appearance keeps you floating in a world of color even as what surrounds them threatens to drag you into a sea of stormy, unrelenting grey.

The show in which they're lost was written by Steven Tomlinson, who is also the show's sole human performer but not appreciably more animated than his shiny onstage colleagues. He spends the better part of 90 minutes trying to establish correlations between the Fiesta obsession he developed as an adult (though it had roots in his childhood) and the difficulties he experienced in trying to marry his longtime partner Leon, but ultimately conveys little more than than the admittedly important lesson that it's possible to be enormously unconvincing even when telling and playing out your own life story.

Granted, Tomlinson has set before himself a difficult task: An exploration of how the inner workings of the human brain affect concepts as diverse as romance, political views, family interactions, and even the hobbies one pursues would challenge the most gifted and creative of playwrights. And applying enough of a cultural and even spiritual polish to all this to make it relevant to those who've never heard (or at least thought) of Fiesta would be harder still.

Even so, Tomlinson's solutions to the premise's built-in problems are either distressingly half-hearted, numbingly obvious, or frequently both. The strangely sinister company he claims he worked for, which was devoted to studying "why you buy what you buy," is pseudonymously named Goldrich Neurometrics. He becomes fanatic about the tiniest chips and cracks in his Fiesta, only to realize upon speaking to a blind soothsayer at a convention that they bestow more meaning on a dish than perfection does. He must gradually learn that happiness doesn't come from the acquirement of flatware, but from the joy of feeding others from it.

Were it not all written as a soft-sell Tupperware party and delivered in a this-is-good-for-you, slide-show-equipped manner reminiscent of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, there's a chance it might prove moderately inspiring. But Tomlinson's tale is so self-indulgently specific (he refers, ad nauseum, to the formative piece of his collection as the "Sacred Soup"), and his performing abilities so limited, even that's ultimately unlikely. It's possible, for example, that Tomlinson's real-life father talks and behaves exactly like former President George H. W. Bush, but it's fair to assume there's more to him than Tomlinson lets on.

Director Mark Brokaw has presided over a slickly static production that does nothing to make its leading man look good. It does do wonders for the Fiesta, though - it all looks so fresh and new, it can't help but catch your eye every time it catches the light. Good glazing, after all, will do that. Unfortunately, American Fiesta has a much more abundant supply of the bad variety, the kind that will infect your eyes long before Tomlinson's final table tableaux is set.

American Fiesta
Through May 20
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15 Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Vineyard Theatre

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