Broadway review

This Play Is the Best Kind of Rubbish: Review of ‘The Object Lesson’ at NYTW

The Daily Beast

February 10, 2017

Do you fancy an evening spent among boxes and boxes of odds-and-ends, a theater full of ephemera and bits and pieces? When you arrive at Geoff Sobelle’s brilliant and strange The Object Lesson at New York Theatre Workshop, you are bidden to go inside the main auditorium and look around, poke around, look inside boxes, inside old telephone cabins, and suitcases.

And on your 15-minute scavenger hunt you may unearth Lego and children’s figures, and lamps, and notes, and old shoes, and old clothes. Bits of paper, mysterious words. Old stuff, new stuff. Just stuff. Everywhere. There are filing cabinets, and more boxes and more intrigues. What a space the NYTW is: from David Bowie’s Lazarus to Red Speedo to, most recently, Othello, and now this. It is—no pun intended—an object lesson in how chameleonic a theatrical space can be.

This latest transformation, shorn as it is of seating of a recognizable kind, is the most discombobulating.

As Sobelle writes on his website, he is a theater artist dedicated to the “sublime ridiculous,” and the co-artistic director of rainpan 43, “a renegade absurdist outfit devoted to creating original actor-driven performance works. Using illusion, film and out-dated mechanics, R43 creates surreal, poetic pieces that look for humanity where you least expect it and find grace where no one is looking.”

At the New York Theatre Workshop, this magnificent, layered mass of mess, this palace of rubbish, is designed floor to ceiling (magnificently by Steven Dufala), and through the space you thread your own pathways around all the objects and mysterious boxes.

You can take your seat anytime you like, not that there are any conventional seats to sit in. That is, figure out what could be a seat—the boxes are very sturdy, I can testify to that—and arrange yourself somewhere in the theater to watch what will unfold. A spokesperson said there were somewhere between 3,500-4,000 boxes in the installation: “That includes about 250 ‘curated boxes’ that the audience explores before the show begins.”

That may mean anywhere in the cavernous space, and it is not immediately obvious if you will be required to perform yourself.

Just where is Sobelle? Is he going to do anything? Are we?

Just then Sobelle does appear, and 100 minutes of uninterrupted, pleasant bafflement, directed by David Neumann, begins. It’s unclear if he’s playing a role or several roles. But he sits at a table, which he arranges in one part of the theater, and takes a phone call. But that phone call is then ingeniously played back to us. There is wonderful music throughout, sometimes loud, sometimes soft. And sometimes the lights go out, and you don’t know where Sobelle will turn up next.

After sitting at a desk, we see him on another side of a theater clamber perilously up a tower of unsure-looking boxes in the service of a story about France, and lost love—and from one box unearths a stop light whose red, amber, and green beams mesmerizingly illuminate the theater. If you are brave enough—and germophobes may wish to look away—a French loaf, cheese, and wine are also handed around to be enjoyed communally.

Love, and its loss, seems to be the linking theme in the main part of the drama. Audience members are chosen randomly to help on certain scenes. The night I saw it, the actress Cush Jumbo, was the chosen one for a major scene involving a member of the audience chosen by Sobelle to have a dinner date with—and a spokesperson for the production said this was pure chance.

This isn’t an Oh, Hello!-style production with celebrities or actors taking on these major roles. Sobelle apparently had no idea who Jumbo was. But wow, this was the evening’s showstopping moment as—inexplicably using a pair of skates he was wearing—Sobelle chopped up vegetables for a salad, while on top of a table. All this took place in yet another part of the theater where Sobelle sought to rearrange all those seated.

In the play’s final stretch, Sobelle colonizes another part of the room—more moving around for those sitting there—to distill the story of a life from an apparently bottomless box. There are objects here that speak of a first date, then intimacy, then a baby, then aging, and soon—with a literal dying of light—mortality itself, the depth of the theme matched by some breathtaking visual illusion.

This segment is the most cohesive, and your pleasure in the play will be dictated by how patient you are with the lack of a coherent story.

A life, Sobelle implies, is yes, the story of the things we surround ourselves with—old records, books, food, couches, razors, after shave—but those objects are not as disposable as we might think. All objects come with their own significance and meanings.

They inspire emotions and encapsulate moments and dearly held routine. They do not define us, but they help to.

The lesson of The Object Lesson is not one of whimsy. Nor is it a predictable condemnation of consumerism. The handsome Sobelle—his word-games, his theatrical trickery, his athleticism and witticisms, and strange, meandering conversations and desire for romance—has created his own toppling palace of psychological ephemera: a lost-and-found world of the self. Here, laid out for us, are his or his character’s memories, and the genius of The Object Lesson is how skillfully he vividly brings them to life to tweak our own memories. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself doing some post-show scavenging.