When Fiestaware debuted in the 1930s, advertisers dubbed it “the dinnerware that turns your table into a celebration.” Now playwright- performer Steven Tomlinson has turned the Vineyard Theatre into a celebration of Fiestaware. As Tomlinson, a slim, mellow figure, shambles across the stage, he’s surrounded on all sides and above by cabinets adorned with Fiestaware. Ivory mixing bowls, yellow platters, cobalt mugs, and red sugar bowls all nestle there, gleaming invitingly under the lights. Even if audiences do not fall for Tomlinson, they may well leave the theater desiring dinnerware—those bright colors, those clean lines, those harmonious proportions.
Tomlinson certainly succumbed. As this semi-autobiographical show details, he spent the better part of a year and thousands of dollars trying to assemble a full set of the highly collectible mixing bowls, to say nothing of the plates, cups, and salt-and-pepper shakers he acquired along the way. Swiveling from eBay purchases to antique-store bargains to pieces begged from relations, Tomlinson attempts to complete his set, and perhaps discover what compels him to do so. He can certainly explain it in chemical terms-: He describes the moment of purchase as a “serotonin smoothie.” But he’s at first unsure why he needs that neurological kick. (It may have more than a little to do with Tomlinson’s parents refusing to attend his gay marriage.)
An economics professor and lay preacher, Tomlinson has learned to deal in bold metaphors—lots of them. At various times in the play, the bowls stand in for repressed emotions, lost childhoods, familial tensions, love, terror, imperfection, acceptance, even the divide between red and blue states. Sometimes the symbolism’s clever, but often it’s strained, and Tomlinson lacks the acting chops to finesse these moments of textual clumsiness.
And yet there’s a grace to Tomlinson, a sweetness. The play may be slight and his conclusions banal, but you like him for revealing both himself and the depth and frivolity of his pottery obsession. It’s the rare man—gay or straight—who can stand behind a table arrayed with dishware and admit, “This is what heaven looks like.”