I run hot and cold on performance art, but I found The Object Lesson — Geoff Sobelle’s art installation piece currently playing at New York Theatre Workshop — to be delightful, mostly. The end result is more a meditation on the place of things in our lives rather than a piece with a clear linear narrative arc.
Which is fine. Different can be good. The audience walks into NYTW’s space — which has had a distinctive look each of the last five times I have visited — and is confronted by what could be best described as Miss Havisham’s attic on steroids. With no clear center as to what the playing area might be, the audience is left to wander and roam a seemingly endless array of boxes, some of which prompt conversation with one’s fellow patrons. Chairs and couches are mixed in with yoga matts and stools. What is perhaps refreshing about Sobelle’s approach is that he does value some objects; this is not an all out attack on material culture. Some items become tokens of memory, of something significant from the past, of something shared.
Sobelle reminded me of two notable, if very different, past performers. On the one hand, when he broke into monologue, he reminded me very much of Spalding Gray. I cannot really say why this should be so. There was nothing Gray-esque necessarily about his focus, but nonetheless, the tone struck a chord that reminded me of that much-missed monologist. On the other hand, there was something clearly Chaplin-esque about the performance. Like his predecessor, Sobelle imbued the inanimate objects about him with life, personality, character. Like Chaplin, Sobelle was confounded and confused by anything representing a technological advance. And like Chaplin, his physicality was extraordinary. His training at École Jacques Lecoq in Paris was very much on display, and it served the performer and his construct well.
Highlights of the performance included two vignettes that make use of circular phone conversations, a monologue about a visit to the French countryside, and a a bit with ice skates and salad (which really has to be experienced rather than described). The ending, however, was something of a let down. The final vignette really did not provide a satisfying coda for all that had transpired up until that point. What was needed was perhaps not some sort of Aristotelian sense of narrative closure — because that is not what The Object Lesson is about — but rather some sort of emotional epiphany that would have made the end of the journey more pointed.
That point of criticism aside, The Object Lesson is very much a worthwhile evening of theatre. If anything, for those of who were there, it brings up fond memories of the kind of work that used to be a staple of the downtown theatre scene. Perhaps it’s time for a large-scale return to that kind of experimentation.