When One Man's Trash Is Also His Treasure

My more materialistic acquinatances, I suspect, will feel a kinship with Geoff Sobelle, creator and performer of “The Object Lesson,” a 100-minute performance piece at The New York Theatre Workshop. All traditional seating has been removed from the East Village venue, in favor of scattered stools covered in inverted cartons, some with black felt marker scribbled on and beseeching guests: “Sit here!”

On entry, ticketholders are encouraged to riffle through boxes stacked precariously around the theater’s circumference. Inside one marked “Magic Box,” I found a cardboard cylinder, with an item rattling inside. The cylinder was labeled: “Harry Anderson’s Needle Through the Arm” trick, and presumably it was a gimmick once marketed by the former “Night Court” comic.

Another box contained a plastic lobster. Still another, a small copy of the U.S. Constitution.

Eventually, it became apparent that one of our fellow voyeurs wasn’t a guest, but the host, Sobelle, an actor, illusionist and maker of absurdist performance art (“All Wear Bowlers”), whose current piece had a previous incarnation at BAM and is, to put it succinctly, a deep dive—with wine and cheese!—into the detritus we aqcquire while going about our lives.

Eventually, the lighting dims, we sit and Sobelle takes over sifting duties, picking out and examining objects significant to either his current life, or a past one: a toothbrush, a razor. From one box, he lifts out a full-sized traffic light—in a bit of visual trickery, it's far larger than the box from which it is removed—its discovery triggered by a memory of a long ago summer spent working in France.

A set of ice skates in another box evokes what we assume is a memory of a date, and a gourmet dinner once prepared. At the performance I attended last weekend, Sobelle randomly chose an audience member to be his companion for the meal—the woman turned out to be the actress Cush Jumbo (Lucca Quinn of “The Good Wife” and its upcoming sequel), which just goes to show you can’t unpack a box in New York City without stumbling over a celebrity.

Though the meal involved wine, cheese and bread from, in theory, decades ago, he nonetheless passed some of each around to the 200 or so of us. Most of us took swigs from the bottle of chenin blanc, which was as crisp as the day is long … you just have to hope the person nearest you isn’t incubating anything.

“Discard anything that doesn’t spark joy,” the best-selling Japanese author Marie Kondo advises. Sobelle, a hoarder for our purposes here, is more inclined to ponder the weight and meaning of the possessions that come into our lives … all of them ... and how they form some unifying thread that helps define us.

At the end of the program, he wanders toward a card catalog filling nearly an entire wall at the back of the theater. Momentarily, I imagined there was some cryptic organizing system in which every item in each dusty carton was itemized and curated.

But he shifted at the last moment, turning to a nearby box and removing a telephone, then its cord, which he unfurled with more and more fervor as it turned into an endless string of twigs and brambles. We're left with a sense of how our stuff interplays with our spiritual lives, the meanings we impart on inanimate objects.

Phone conversations are little wisps that vanish into the ether, out of our grasp. But plastic lobsters are forever. If you see “The Object Lesson,” leave behind your inner Marie Kondo, and perhaps embrace an idea popularized by the kids from “Spring Awakening”: “We’ve all got our junk, and my junk is you.”

“The Object Lesson,” through March 5 at the New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St. Tickets: $69. Call 212-460-5475.

Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn

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