Originally published on Paste Magazine
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An admittedly anxious person who often copes with stress or uncertainty by cleaning, I was curious as to how I would feel during The Object Lesson. But this cluttered and confusing performance art/installation piece at New York Theatre Workshop did not inspire anxiety in me throughout its 100-minute performance. Instead, I merely felt bored.
Directed by David Neumann and performed by Geoff Sobelle, who describes himself as a theatre artist dedicated to the “sublime ridiculous,” The Object Lesson has transformed the New York Theatre Workshop into an overcrowded storage unit, packed floor to ceiling with old pieces of a furniture and piles upon piles of boxes. Stuffed deer heads adorn the walls, and a rowboat hangs suspended from the ceiling.
Audience members are invited to explore the set before the show begins, opening the boxes and poking around. They are then instructed to find seats either on or among the boxes. (If you’re quick, you can get one of the actual pieces of furniture that offer back support.) Each person is also given a handout filled with text related to the show that asks at the end, “Do you have what you need? Do you need what you have?”
Then Sobelle appears, and the show presumably begins. I say “presumably” because the show is so confusing and unstructured that I’m not even sure it was a show. For the next hour and a half, he paces the room, pokes through boxes and shares some memories with the audience. But there is no narrative thread connecting these vignettes, nor is there an underlying theme or message to be found, despite my desperately looking for one, resulting in an unsatisfying and extremely frustrating experience.
Sobelle begins by attempting to describe each object in the room, a project he quickly abandons before placing a very unsettling phone call. He then digs through one box in particular while describing his semester in France to the audience before sharing a baguette and cheese and a bottle of wine with the people sitting near him. These memories involve a lengthy description of a stoplight that then appears and the audience is forced to sit in silence, watching it, for several minutes.
Following that “scene,” a dinner is prepared for a female audience member Sobelle plucks, seemingly at random, from the crowd. This moment is one of the few that is actually entertaining, as Sobelle prepares a salad by tap-dancing on a bed of lettuce while wearing ice skates. His enthusiasm for this absurdity is apparent, but the gag continues several minutes longer than it should. Two other audience members are then made to describe the contents of their bags and rank the objects in order of importance. And the final, irritatingly inconclusive scene is also performed for far too long.
The transformation of the performance space (designed by Steven Dufala) at NYTW is impressive, but by removing the “performance” aspect of it, a large detriment is done to The Object Lesson, as this transformation has rendered much of the show impossible for many to see. This, along with the absence of any kind of narrative thread is frustrating. Is The Object Lesson supposed to inspire questions about materialism and people’s focus on owning things? Is it intended to reflect on how our possessions tell stories about ourselves and our lives? None of the “scenes” in The Object Lesson inspired these thoughts organically; it was only through desperately searching for meaning that these thoughts came to me.
At one point, he says (whether to the audience or himself is unclear), ““I’m trying to find something, it’s around here somewhere.” May I suggest he begin with a plot?