NEW YORK—For many people, the opportunity to rummage through an unknown attic, basement, or collection of bric-a-brac is irresistible. Performance artist Geoff Sobelle uses that idea as the starting point of his fascinating and totally immersive piece “The Object Lesson,” now at the New York Theatre Workshop.
For the occasion, the theater’s entire playing area has been transformed into a cross between a hoarder’s home, a second-rate antique shop, and an estate sale with semi-organized clutter.
Among the visible objects are a traffic light, a canoe, a telephone book, a gigantic green plush snake, and lamps in all shapes and sizes. There are dozens upon dozens of boxes with such scribblings on them as “Dad’s stuff,” “stuff I don’t know what to do with,” and “stuff I may have use for someday.”
Many of these boxes, as well as furniture of all types, double as seats for the audience. The audience members are allowed to wander about both before and after the show and investigate the boxes’ contents for themselves.
Upon entering, Sobelle fashions himself a small living area—complete with a rug, plant, telephone, table, chairs, and gramophone—out of the myriad materials around him.
While he’s settling in, we hear him having a one-sided phone conversation, and it’s clear enough that Sobelle’s character is a very lonely and introverted man who has an issue when it comes to holding on to stuff.
Sobelle continually switches between comedy to pathos, sometimes seeming to channel Steve Martin. Comical high points include a unique tap dancing sequence, which leads into a rather innovative way to prepare a salad.
Sobelle clambers up and down the stacks of boxes and other paraphernalia, selecting objects seemingly at random and occasionally emitting an exclamation of surprise or delight when he finds a long-forgotten memento, which then sets him off on new tangential recollections. More than once, he comes across something of which he has no memory at all or inkling of why he even bothered to save it.
The various flights of fancy notwithstanding, Sobelle takes great pains to keep his character grounded in reality and offers fascinating insights into this rather unsettled soul. A call to a long-lost love is particularly touching.
The show also features interplay between Sobelle and the audience. Some of it is rather slight, such as having someone hold a box or a lamp. Some unsuspecting folks may be asked to read passages from notebooks or talk on a phone.
The actor clearly wants the audience to have a communal experience with him. He passes around some of the objects he’s saved so that everybody can feel the same sense of wonder or nostalgia he feels when handling them. What the character fails to see is that personal memories don’t always translate well when people haven’t been through the same events.
Act 2 changes gears somewhat, turning into part magic show, part examination of the morning routine. Sobelle illustrates many of the routines we all go through before we’re ready to get out of the house and start our day, from brushing our teeth to having our morning coffee. The scene, to be honest, goes on a bit too long and ends up delivering rather heavy-handed symbols.
This quibble aside, “The Object Lesson” is quite enjoyable and refreshingly different from anything else on the New York theatrical scene this season. Sobelle turns in a tour de force performance as he keeps the audience guessing throughout a not always linear but often insightful journey.
Steven Dufala’s scenic design is excellent. The seemingly haphazard placement of the various objects in the installation makes the playing space feel nothing at all like a conventional theater.
David Neumann’s direction works well, allowing Sobelle to run with his concept (which he has been working on for a number of years) and bring it to fruition without a hint of falsehood.
“The Object Lesson” is an enjoyable adventure of discovery, both in regards to what’s in the different boxes and in the makeup of the person who lives in these surroundings. He’s clearly someone who should not be dismissed simply because of the emotional baggage he carries.
‘The Object Lesson’
New York Theatre Workshop
79 E. Fourth St.
Tickets: 212-460-5475 or NYTW.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (no intermission)
Closes: March 19
Judd Hollander is a reviewer for www.StageBuzz.com and a member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle.