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Theatre in Review: The Object Lesson (New York Theatre Workshop)

Geoff Sobelle. Photo: Joan Marcus

It's not uncommon for reviewers, speaking figuratively, to praise a performer for making something out of nothing; Geoff Sobelle literally makes it happen. About two-thirds of the way through the unclassifiable entertainment known as The Object Lesson, Sobelle picks up a folded cardboard box and tapes the bottom panel into place. Putting it on a tiny stool, he proceeds to withdraw from it a clock radio, a cup of hot coffee, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a can of shaving cream, a razor, several phones (including an old-fashioned rotary model), a hairdryer, at least a dozen pairs of eyeglasses, a number of cigar boxes (one of which contains a lit cigar), a bag containing a snifter of brandy, any number of folded-up diapers, and an array of toys. This is only a partial list. It goes on and on, until he is pulling yards and yards of steel-cable and an equal length of dead tree branches. How he achieves this, I cannot begin to guess. It is the single greatest illusion I have ever seen.

Also, this sequence, which lasts several minutes, seems to cover an entire lifetime. It is nearly wordless, except for early on, when Sobelle assumes the persona of a ruthless, time-is-money businessman. He's on the phone with a colleague, trying to get an update on certain crucial figures, but the discussion becomes increasingly frantic as he produces what seems like an infinite number of pens, none of which work. As the action intensifies, his conversation becomes increasingly incoherent; he insists that he spoke to another colleague "on Thursday, Friday, one of the days!" As silence sets in, and the objects keep coming, he appears to be a new father, dealing with baby things and an audio monitor relaying a persistent series of infant cries. Then he dons a cardigan and glasses that make him look years older. By the time he is hauling cable and branches, large quantities of dust are stirred up, and apocalyptic sounds are heard; it's as if the performer is digging his grave. You could call it Sobelle's personal version of Shakespeare's "seven ages of man" speech from As You Like It, and you wouldn't be far off.

I won't tell you too much more about The Object Lesson, which relies on surprise for much of its effect. I can tell you that audience seating has been removed from New York Theatre Workshop's auditorium, and the space has been filled with hundreds of boxes containing just about anything you can think of. (At first glance, it looks like an episode of Hoarders.) Before the show, the audience is invited to wander around, opening boxes, putting on headsets, and generally poking into things. Among other things, I found bottles, toy trains, a number of dental care items, bank statements, and a pile of old issues of Playboy from decades past. (The one on top had as its cover girl Bo Derek, plugging her appearance in the film Tarzan, the Ape Man.) I also picked up a box on which was written instructions saying that I should hand it to someone else, saying, "I think this is for you." I complied, and, for several minutes afterward, heard voices in the background saying the same thing as the box got handed around. Gradually, everyone ends up seated -- on stools, pillows, or anywhere convenient -- and Sobelle enters, unpacking several boxes and making up an impromptu living room, with club chair, a trio of lamps, and a stereo turntable. And the show begins.

After that, I hesitate to say too much. I will note that, in his deadpan, often silent demeanor and sometimes fraught relationship with physical objects, Sobelle -- an average-looking sort with thinning hair and an expression suggestive of a soulful, well-educated basset hound -- is in the tradition of Buster Keaton and that, in his best moments, he can hold his own with such New Vaudevillians as Bill Irwin and David Shiner. He also has his own amusing way with words, delivering a seemingly disconnected monologue that he tapes and plays back, his apparently random comments acquiring meaning in the context of a phone conversation he has with himself. He also drags a number of audience members into the fray, especially in a sequence, featuring a young woman selected for a romantic dinner, that culminates in a routine, the elements of which include ice skates, the ingredients of a salad, tap dance, and a recording of "All I Do is Dream of You." Without going into details, it is bizarrely inventive and it brings down the house.

Honestly compels me to add that one section, a reminiscence of time spent in France, delivered in a near monotone, drags rather notably -- and because it unfolds in almost total darkness, you may have to resist the urge to nod off. You may also find yourself wondering what to make of the entire experience, and whether it required the gut renovation of an entire theatre. Occasionally, the piece sounds darker, the more subterranean notes suggestive of mortality and man's essentially solitary state. At other times, it seems like the most overelaborate comedy show you've ever seen. The overall theme remains utterly elusive: Sobelle appears to be saying something about the millions of objects that fill our lives -- but what?

Then again, even when The Object Lesson wanders, Sobelle's presence casts a powerful spell. The scenic installation, by Steven Dufala, is spectacularly detailed (and given the way the star lays waste to it, my heart goes out to the NYTW staffers who must reassemble it each night). The sight of Sobelle climbing a most unsteady pile of boxes, taking refuge in kind of a tiny loft space, is hard to forget. Christopher Kuhl's lighting design makes inventive use of practical lamps; a moment when the darkened room is slowly illuminated by dozens of lamps that one hadn't even noticed is magical. Nick Kourtides' sound design takes localized effects -- music emanating from a radio or record player -- and fluidly spreads them throughout the room. The director, David Neumann, has clearly assembled the right team to assist his star.

The Object Lesson is far from perfect, but, for most of us, it's a fine introduction to an artist who isn't quite like anyone you've ever seen; I'm guessing that once you've made his acquaintance, you'll be more than willing to go along for the whole wild ride. In any case, he's worth a look -- as well as the sleep you'll lose trying to figure out how he managed that incredible box trick. -- David Barbour

(10 February 2017)

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