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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
As that first bowl leads to another, so each new possession led to a new layer of thought about the appeal of these colorful dishes — how collecting them tied in to his own personal past and present and, in a larger sense, the American Experience. Since Tomlinson is a seasoned performer with several plays to his credit and another career as an economics and theology teacher (also as a lay preacher and corporate motivational speaker), his Fiesta mania was a seed for a play just waiting to be planted and watered. That seedling became American Fiesta, a solo performance piece which premiered in Austin, Texas and won the American Theatre Critics Association's 2006 Osborn Award for Best Play by an Emerging Playwright.
This unlikely combination of a memoir about being bitten by the collecting bug and political and social commentary has now come to the Vineyard Theater near Union Square, with Tomlinson again performing as himself and also several other characters. It's been given a slick staging by the prolific and talented director Mark Brokaw.
The connection between collecting and American social and political attitudes didn't strike Tomlinson until he started traveling hither ad yon to put together his complete and perfect set of Fiestaware. It was when he realized that the original Fiestaware colors were the same as the colors on the Department of Homeland Security's Terror Alert scale that a light bulb went off. Another kind of alert was prompted by a newspaper article detailing how the original Fiestaware was radioactive, giving these beautiful dishes their own built-in potential to kill.
The Fiesta travels also brought Tomlinson into contact with people who didn't think like him so the symbolism of the Terror Alert matching the Fiesta colors led to a rumination about the color tags used to separate conservatives (red) from liberals (blue). All these bits and pieces became part of this extended philosophical monologue. The insight into how the human brain kicks up the memories that are at the heart of the appeal of objects we collect, the Terror Alert System color scheme, the collectors contacted on EBay are handsomely illustrated by Jan Hartley and S. Katy Tucker's projections. And, of course, there are the dishes themselves, beautifully displayed in Neil Patel's proscenium of wood cabinets and eventually lovingly arranged in an upstage lucite display case. The text also recognizes the history that makes the imperfect pieces as worth preserving as the perfect ones.
The plot, if you can call it that, ties all the above to Tomlinson's impending marriage to his longtime partner and his problematic relationship with his conservative parents who know he's gay but never discussed it and now refuse to attend the wedding (that conflict, paving the way for a redemptive twist). It's a lot of material to pack into an eighty minute monologue. To his credit, Tomlinson manages to make all the pieces fit even though it's all a bit too neat and tends to come off less as a play than a sermon. That sermonizing tendency is softened by the entertaining projections and watching those gleaming dishes migrate from the side cabinets which represent their original homes to the upstage shelves representing their new caretaker's home.
While I found Tomlinson's observations interesting and intelligent, his performance is amiable but more that of a motivational speaker than a dynamic actor. Consequently, I didn't really relate to him on an emotional level as I would to a character in a less talky and more dramatically structured play. On the other hand, the expert integration of so much complex subject matter into what at first glance seems like an animated Antiques Road Show and Mark Brokaw's elegant staging did, if you'll forgive the pun, bowl me over.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide