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The Object LessonBy Geoff SobelleDirected by David NeumannScenic Installation Design by Steven Dufala
Photograph: Joan Marcus

Theater review: The Object Lesson joyfully hoards countless theatrical gems

Written by
David Cote

Is it me, or is there something morbid about clutter? Doesn’t a hoarder’s room reek (visually, at least) of death and decay? If so, the environment installed by Steven Dufala at New York Theatre Workshop for performer Geoff Sobelle and director David Neumann’s astonishing and revelatory The Object Lesson is one epic mausoleum. NYTW’s open space has been transformed (weeks after Sam Gold’s immersive, militarized Othello) into a warehouse of ephemera: mountains of cardboard boxes, taxidermic trophies, a boat hanging from the rafters, tools, toys, lampshades—an exhaustive inventory of stuff. There’s so much detritus on display, in fact, your instinctive sense that someone has died is replaced by countless concrete reminders that, my God, they lived.

One wall is dominated by a library card catalogue, its little drawers labeled precisely yet whimsically: WACKY HATS TO WHITE PAGES, RED STUFF, TOOTH STUFF, WON’T OPEN. A similar rigor and silliness permeates the action, which follows the droll and deft Sobelle as he digs through wreckage and pulls out surprising items from boxes, monologuing on meaning and provenance. If you didn’t catch this startlingly original show when it premiered at BAM three years ago (my colleague Helen Shaw reviewed it then), treat yourself to this limited run.

It's best seen without advance information, but to give a taste: Sobelle recounts his student days in France, cajoles an audience member into a dinner date (a pair of ice skates proves useful in preparing salad) and executes a mind-blowing illusion involving dozens of things pulled out of a single box, a condensed, materialist history of a life. What exactly is the lesson here? We live, we die, we leave garbage behind. But to make art from trash: That’s real magic.

New York Theatre Workshop (Off Broadway). Conceived and performed by Geoff Sobelle. Directed by David Neumann. Running time: 1hr 40mins. No intermission. Through Mar 5. Click here for full venue and ticket information.

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