The Object Lesson might alternately be titled Hoarders Live! This collaboration of writer-performer Geoff Sobelle, installation artist Steven Dufala, and director David Neumann (which played BAM's 2014 Next Wave Festival to great acclaim) shares certain similarities with the cable reality program, most notably the room packed to the rafters with junk in which it is performed (a barely recognizable New York Theatre Workshop for this 2017 run). There's also the pronounced narcissism of its subject, a unifying trait of the reality genre. Of course, we don't enjoy the protective barrier of a television screen in this immersive theatrical experience, so the cavalcade of junk and neurosis feels real and present. It's like spending 90 minutes with a self-involved friend as he digs through his storage unit.
Truly, no theater off-Broadway takes bigger risks with set design than NYTW, and this show is no exception. Dufala has painstakingly filled the theater with boxes and objects in a manner that normally requires decades of organic accumulation. House staff encourages us to explore as soon as we enter, and a little bit of excavation reveals that this isn't just the veneer of hoarding — it's the real thing.
As the performance begins, we take our seats on boxes scattered around the floor. Sobelle sits in a cozy armchair and speaks into a handheld recorder, looking very much like Samuel Beckett's Krapp recording the first of many tapes. On the cusp of fraying, his three-piece suit suggests a muted clown, the kind you might find cracking jokes around an office water cooler. His speech is halting, with an exaggerated angst, as he attempts to explain each object in the room before mercifully abandoning that unwieldy project. Eventually, he focuses on one box that holds a collection of particularly happy memories from the time he spent in French art school. He removes cheese and wine from a high storage place, passing it around for us all to enjoy (drink if you dare this flu season).
All of this seems to be hinting at how our objects tell a story about us: What do we value? What do we see as trash? This is certainly a worthwhile story, but Sobelle consistently chooses the most uninteresting ways to tell it. His interactions with the audience feel more labored than charming. At one point, he pulls a large traffic light out of a box, and we spend several minutes of silence watching the colors change on this giant metaphor. At the performance I attended, a patron loudly remarked, "Red: That means we can't go."
In this room overflowing with curiosities, we should be able to find something with which to connect. We are handed a sheet as we enter the room that invites us to keep digging around during the performance, but it never seems like a real option. As we watch Sobelle stumble over set pieces and audience members in the dark, we reconsider any impulse to explore.
Execution often feels like an afterthought in Neumann's production: Key moments are staged low to the ground, so a large number of audience members can't see them clearly. We are intermittently entreated to move around the space to make way for the performer. Productions like Here Lies Love and NYTW's very own Scenes From a Marriage have shown how effective participatory staging can be in engaging an audience, but there has to be a plan that facilitates efficient movement. Sadly, all The Object Lesson has is one unfailing patient usher valiantly attempting to reseat the people displaced by Sobelle's creativity. It doesn't help that no one accounted for the fact the show would be performing in winter: Without a place to check their own objects, patrons carry heavy bags and coats with them throughout the performance, occasionally jostling pieces of the set. The absurdity of this clumsy movement is often more amusing than Sobelle's more purposeful clowning.
That's not to say there aren't good ideas behind the show. David Parker has choreographed a tabletop tap routine that Sobelle performs while wearing ice skates. It is physically impressive and carries with it a hint of danger. While too dim to really encourage exploration, Christopher Kuhl's lighting is often gorgeous, inventively relying on practicals rather than traditional stage lights. They glimmer around the periphery, beautifully setting the mood for a Chopin Nocturne or Burt Bacharach love song (tastefully rendered sound design by Nick Kourtides). Unfortunately, the clearest part of the show comes in the form of a generic rom-com subplot in which Sobelle casts himself in the lead, conscripting a manic pixie dream girl from the audience. It seems like a lot of effort for so little substance.
As very popular shows like Sleep No More and Fuerza Bruta demonstrate, New York audiences are willing to forgo the traditional comforts of the theater if you leave them in a state of shock and wonder. The only feeling The Object Lesson is able to deliver is confusion chased by a sincere hope that it will end quickly. If any good comes out of the show, it will be to convince audience members to go home and clean house, lest they be reminded of the messy performance art they just witnessed.