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The Object Lesson

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - February 9, 2017

Geoff Sobelle
Photo by Joan Marcus

The old axiom that one person's trash is another person's treasure is beautifully illustrated by most of The Object Lesson, a kind of theatrical art installation by Geoff Sobelle that just opened at New York Theater Workshop. The playing space is not filled with the traditional seats-and-set combo to which even this ever-malleable auditorium usually limits itself. Instead, cardboard boxes of all shapes and sizes are stacked, floor to ceiling, as if an unsorted garage, an abandoned storage unit, or a forgotten warehouse. Pick up one of the smaller ones to sit on for the next 90 minutes. (Don't worry, it's reinforced.) Peer inside another and you might discover a stuffed animal, a hubcap, or foam snakes. And don't miss the bicycle, canoe, and rowboat suspended from the ceiling.

Where did all this come from? Who owns it? And what does it mean? While you wait for the show to begin, you may come to the conclusion that answers are not forthcoming because no one knows—or can know—what they are. This is not an unfair or inaccurate assessment, as you'll learn soon enough.

Whether any of what litters the room is intended to be taken literally or act merely as stand-ins for a dissolving memory becomes immaterial once Sobelle appears to make sense of it. From a seemingly random collection of items all around him, he pulls the furnishings of a living room dislodged from time. (There's a "modern" record player, yes, but also a classic gramophone.) He, like all of us, is trying to bring order to the chaos, though he must fight the forces of entropy at every turn. Meaningless musings assume new gravity as they're recorded and twisted around on themselves, raising the question of whether we're hearing what we thought we did the first time, or if we're simply hiding behind too much baggage of our own.

Subsequent scenes chronicle a lengthy recollection of a youthful, romantic period in France, complete with wine, goat cheese, and a baguette that are pulled from yet another cardboard container; audience members poring through their wallets and purses and describing and ranking by necessity every item they find therein; and, perhaps most memorably, a rendezvous with a lovely woman (chosen, I'm assured, from unknowing, innocent audience members) who may or may not be speaking a language the man can understand. Their date together climaxes in him preparing her an artisan salad by tap-dancing on romaine lettuce while wearing ice skates, but when it comes time for her to spill her heart, she's a lot more open with whomever she's speaking to on the phone than she ever is with our hero. Not everyone is ready for everything we have to give them.

With sharp direction by David Neumann, scenic design by Steven Dufala, and lighting by Christopher Kuhl, The Object Lesson is a wacky, unpredictable meditation on how we analyze and compartmentalize the information we acquire, and the blessings and dangers that are inherent in trying to translate that process for others. By turns ecstatic, flustered, and somber, the scenarios that unfold build upon this notion until you're no longer sure whether you can even trust yourself. Sobelle, an eminently likable Everyman type, is the only constant, and though his character comes across as no less confused than you, he has an indomitable spirit that explains why he—and we—should never give up the things that make us most who we are. Once we do, there's nothing left.

Geoff Sobelle
Photo by Joan Marcus

If the evening's finale were constructed off of this idea, it would be a glimmering little gem of a performance piece that would border on the profound if not the life-changing. (Sobelle doesn't dig deep enough into his conceits for that to be the case.) Sadly, that's not where Sobelle goes. He chooses instead a well-worn illusion, pulling a series of possessions out of a box he's proven to us starts empty. But rather than use this as a springboard, he dwells on it for an eternity, taking us not through merely one person's typical day, but also his life, and that of his children. This might be funny for 30 seconds, which is about the longest most professional magicians would dare push it out without some jaw-dropping stagecraft to accompany it, but not the 10 or more minutes Sobelle draws it out. It gets irritating quickly, since there's little of the dialogue, and none of the fun, of his earlier excursions into the mind.

You don't want to believe that anyone who's collected this much stuff, and located within it so much about himself, would own no better way to bring to a close this sort of dynamic, winning effort. But that ultimately seems to be the case: This guy is drowning in a sea of too much, without realizing that the best way to survive might be to divest himself. Cleaning up, literally or metaphorically, is what we need to see. But Sobelle wraps up The Object Lesson by making a big mess of the whole darn, otherwise brilliant, thing.

The Object Lesson
Through March 5
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street between Bowery & 2nd Avenue
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