“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,” George Carlin said in his famous “A Place for My Stuff” routine. The popular comedy bit served as inspiration for Geoff Sobelle’s tour-de-force one-man show, The Object Lesson, which was first seen in New York City in a brief four-day run at BAM in November 2014 and is currently in the midst of an extended seven-week engagement at New York Theatre Workshop. The ever-malleable NYTW space has been transformed by designer and multidisciplinary artist Steven Dufala into a large storage room cluttered with hundreds of boxes; although there are some chairs and couches along the perimeter, the majority of the audience sits on small boxes that they take from piles in the central area. Arrive at least fifteen minutes before the official start time so you can look inside any of the myriad boxes that are not taped shut, finding strange and unusual items that might trigger memories of your own. You can also peruse a card catalog filled with yet more stuff and listen in on a conversation coming through a tin can in an old phone booth in the corner. Ultimately, Sobelle emerges from the audience, as if he could be any one of us, and for the next hundred minutes he explores his life through the things he’s saved in the boxes. Channeling Buster Keaton, he sets up small, decidedly analog vignettes that involve ingenious illusions and audience participation as he comes upon objects that bring up remembrances that are touching and funny as well as sad and heartbreaking. They also make us, the audience, consider our own relationship to our collected stuff; don’t be surprised if you go home after the show and start gathering items to be thrown away — only to put some of them back.
Director David Neumann keeps the action moving all around the space, on the floor and high into the mountains of boxes, so it really doesn’t matter where you sit, although if you’re on a box, you can move around somewhat to follow Sobelle, the co-artistic director of rainpan 43 and longtime member of Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theatre Company. Christopher Kuhl’s lighting is extraordinary, a character unto itself (which is especially true in one of the later scenes). The boxes and the “stuff” they contain evoke the way humans compartmentalize memories in the brain, storing some away forever while others keep popping up, making the psyche not just a house but a home, to paraphrase and invert David Byrne’s “Glass, Concrete & Stone,” which Sobelle plays on a turntable early on. The pace of the show can change depending on who Sobelle asks to participate; note that none of them are plants. When I saw the production at BAM, the participants were not only seamless but added to the overall performance; however, when I saw it at NYTW, a few of those moments came to a screeching halt because of some of the participants (although the primary one was great). The play concludes with a scintillating journey through time that is utterly brilliant and beautifully cathartic. Winner of three major awards at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe, The Object Lesson is about the roots that hold us together and tear us apart, the lifetime of cords that connect and disconnect us, the archaeology of memory, and the very things that make us who we are.