Review: ‘The Object Lesson’ at New York Theatre Workshop

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As an avid collector of art, antiques, and memorabilia, with a PhD in Art History, I have spent a lot of time around objects, studying, explaining, and appreciating them. And I’ve always known that it’s not the monetary value or the conspicuous consumption of the things we accumulate that matter; it’s the sense of beauty, history, and culture they embody, and the people, places, and events we associate with them. They give physical form to our aesthetic taste and social trends, and document our most treasured memories, so that we have something pleasurable and meaningful to hold onto in our transitory existence. Time flies, recollections fade, people pass, but the objects remain. Even the most mundane items we amass and retain not only hold a personal significance for us as individuals, but also represent a commonality to which we can all relate. In the end, the artifacts we choose to save tell the story of a lifetime, then of generations past, and ultimately of the universal human condition. That’s the message of The Object Lesson, created and performed by Geoff Sobelle, and it’s worth its weight in gold.

Geoff Sobelle. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Geoff Sobelle (on table). Photo by Joan Marcus.

From the moment we enter the performance area at New York Theatre Workshop, we are fully immersed in stuff — lots and lots of it. Scenic Installation Designer Steven Dufala has transformed the venue into an expansive storage facility, with cardboard boxes of all size and objects of all description stacked high, scattered around the space, leaning against the walls, and suspended from the ceiling. We are encouraged to walk amidst the clutter, to read the handwritten notations on the boxes, to open them, to examine their contents, to touch and to take photos, just as the heirs, estate-sale shoppers, curators, and archaeologists of the future will do with it all. The lights go down, we sit on designated boxes, assorted seats, tables, and pillows, or remain standing and continue walking around, as Sobelle begins his reflective journey through things, space, time, and life.

Directed by David Neumann, the delightfully agile performer uses the entire repository, moving from one side to another, around the perimeters, through the crowded center, and scaling the heights, as he explores and contemplates the titular objects and relates to us the thoughts and anecdotes they conjure. At first slow, tentative, and pensive, then increasingly fast, and finally frenetic, Sobelle takes us through a sequence of impeccably-timed, perceptive, and witty remembrances and re-enactments related to the seemingly endless array of possessions he pulls out (how does he do that?), sharing them and their relevance, directly involving the audience, and engaging us in the lessons they teach about how we relate to others and what we value most. His stories are filled with joy and disappointment, nostalgia and insight, surprises and metaphors, as the preserved relics (“There’s a fine line between vintage and crap”) set off a light bulb in his mind and become as fresh as the reminiscences they elicit; words from past conversations change context and meaning as they are repeated over time; absurdist fantasies come to life (the date-night salad-making dance scene is absolutely hilarious and exhilarating); and everyday belongings stir up old episodes that are commonplace “but kinda lovely, too.”

Geoff Sobelle. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Geoff Sobelle (center, seated). Photo by Joan Marcus.

The beauty, sensitivity, humor, and enchantment of the award-winning show (it took top prize in the 2014 Edinburgh Festival Fringe) are supported by the masterful lighting of Christopher Kuhl, precise sound by Nick Kourtides, spirited choreography by David Parker/The Bang Group, and astonishing sleight-of-hand tricks for which Steve Cuiffo served as Illusion Consultant.

New York Theatre Workshop’s presentation of Geoff Sobelle’s The Object Lesson is funny and magical, affecting and poignant, like life itself, so go and savor every second of it before its limited run is over.

Running Time: Approximately 100 minutes, with no intermission.

Geoff Sobelle.The Object Lesson plays through Sunday, March 5, 2017, performing at New York Theatre Workshop – 79 East 4th Street, in NYC. For tickets, call the box office at (212) 460-5475, or purchase them online.

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