Geoff Sobelle is a modern-day Buster Keaton in his one-man show The Object Lesson, which had its New York premiere at the BAM Fisher on Wednesday night and continues through Saturday. Once the doors to the intimate Fishman Space open, lucky ticket holders — the run is sold out, although there is a standby line — enter a room filled with hundreds and hundreds of cardboard boxes of all sizes, some scattered across the floor to be used as seats, others piled high to the ceiling. Many of the boxes are open, inviting people to peruse their contents. They contain the stuff of a lifetime, a hoarder’s fantasy, from footballs and photographs to stuffed animals and trophies, from Christmas decorations and clothing to papers and toys. There’s also a large card catalog with drawers and drawers of smaller items, many of which hold surprises that reveal a wry sense of humor. (Be sure to check out the Hamlet compartment.) Eventually, Sobelle enters the room and creates a central space consisting of a carpet, chair, side table, and lamps, magically pulling the items out of boxes while David Byrne’s “Glass, Concrete & Stone” plays on a turntable; “It is just a house, not a home,” the former Talking Head sings, differentiating between physical things and a more emotional concept. For the next seventy minutes or so, Sobelle rummages through boxes, interacts with the audience, has cleverly created telephone conversations, makes a salad like no one else ever has, and encounters memories that he can’t decide whether he wants to forget or remember, prompted by particular, tangible pieces of his past. He does all this in a mostly deadpan manner, with plenty of sly nods to the audience, who occasionally need to shift position when he builds his next set. (In addition to the “box seats” on the floor, a more standard row of theater chairs in the balcony accommodates those who might be otherwise uncomfortable, but the floor is clearly the place to be.) It all leads to a dazzling finale in which Sobelle, the co-artistic director of rainpan 43 and longtime member of Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theatre Company, gathers everyone around him as he — well, you have to see it to believe it.
Every movement, every step, is wonderfully choreographed by Sobelle’s collaborators, director David Neumann, set designer Steven Dufala, lighting designer Christopher Kuhl, and sound designer Nick Kourtides, each contributing to the immersive illusion of it all. Winner of three major awards at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe, The Object Lesson is inspired in part by the wit and wisdom of George Carlin, who said in his famous “A Place for My Stuff” routine, “That’s all you need in life, a little place for your stuff. That’s all your house is — a place to keep your stuff.” Sobelle has turned BAM’s Fishman Space into his own house, his own storage facility, like the end of Citizen Kane, with boxes and boxes of the stuff he has accumulated over the years. (Yes, many of the items are actually his.) Call it what you want — junk, trash, flotsam and jetsam, garbage, debris, waste, crap — but each one has a particular meaning for him, each one a root that ties him down, and it will dredge up memories of your own as well, especially when you return home and look at your own stuff, opening that box at the back of your closet that you haven’t looked inside for years.