Before he gets carried away and hits the self-destruct button, Steven Tomlinson has a good thing going with “American Fiesta,” his solo piece about an obsessive collector of Fiestaware who applies his insights about the vintage collectible crockery to everything from U.S. politics to his family’s reaction to his plans to marry his same-sex partner. But while auds may be delighted to hear that the festive Fiestaware colors correspond to the hues of Homeland Security’s terrorist alert code, Tomlinson’s lengthy family anecdotes lose their kick through repetition, eventually becoming maudlin.
Tall and authoritatively earnest in his shirt-sleeved persona, Tomlinson presents himself as a 40-year-old researcher with Goldrich Neurometrics, an outfit studying the human brain to determine which triggers lead its owner to choose a particular political candidate or blow a credit card limit.
As a corporate consultant himself, as well as a lecturer in economics at the U. of Texas in Austin, the lanky performer comes honestly by his persuasive manner of working an audience. Helmer Mark Brokaw surely deserves some credit, though, for big laughs generated by thesp’s animated presentation (with gesticulating references to oversized anatomical illustrations) describing how the limbus and the cortex duke it out in the brain when someone feels the urge for “a serotonin smoothie.”
Tomlinson hits his stride when he turns his lecture on the neurological impulses of instant gratification into something personal — namely, his own obsessive urge to run around the country collecting Fiestaware. To house these treasures, set designer Neil Patel has claimed the proscenium arch, constructing a stunning edifice of open shelves and built-in cabinets of honey-colored hue and Shaker design. Whenever a new bowl comes into the house, a little bell sounds and a direct light throws a warm glow over the piece.
Endearing when he is simply extolling the charm of the clunky crockery’s vibrant colors and sturdy shapes, Tomlinson is even more engaging in full lecture mode, explaining how the “passionate colors of Latin America” answered the urgent need of Depression-era Americans to escape the grimness of their lives. At least, over the dinner table.
We’re still with Tomlinson when he applies this knowledge to himself, recognizing that his urge to collect Fiestaware has a lot to do with his yearning to return to childhood and reconnect with his rural Oklahoma family. More to the point, it has to do with his wish to win the approval of his father and mother for his wedding with partner Leon.
Scribe tries to create suspense over whether his obsessive quest to collect a perfect set of Fiestaware will magically bless the men’s nuptials, or at least get his parents to attend the wedding. But by this time the piece is drowning in metaphors, as Tomlinson frantically consults dealers, fellow collectors and total strangers (who all come across as puppet figures in his uninspired impersonations) in an attempt to win some kind of overarching mystical validation for a personal life choice.
Enough with the blind soothsayers and the “sacred soup of tears and laughter.” Back to the lecture hall …