Off-Broadway Review: “The Object Lesson” at New York Theatre Workshop

David Roberts

OnStage Chief New York Theatre Critic

“Do you have what you need? Do you need what you have?” – Geoff Sobelle

The audience enters the New York Theatre Workshop into a vast display of “stuff” up for viewing, exploring, opening, sharing, moving around, and engaging with. And there is plenty to explore: lamps of all sizes and shapes; small boats filled with boxes suspended from the ceiling; animals stuffed by a taxidermist; plush animals stuffed by toymakers; radios of all vintages; books; guitars; a box indicating the contents was stolen from a hotel; and a wall of small drawers just waiting to be opened.

What does Geoff Sobelle do with all this “stuff?” The creator of “The Object Lesson,” currently playing at New York Theatre Workshop, seems to want to engage the audience in a conversation about “property,” about “what is ours and what we will do with it all.” Throughout the ninety minutes Mr. Sobelle has the attention of the audience, he provides several object lessons: sharing a variety of times and places he has encountered stuff, has reexamined it, has remembered where he was when he obtained it, has decided whether to keep it or discard it. He challenges the audience to do the same.

The audience becomes part of the clutter, part of life’s detritus, and Mr. Sobelle is not shy about literally shoving viewers around, even using his hands to touch heads and push people aside. One wonders if the audience is worth sorting through or just more stuff? What does he want to do with us? Sorting through stuff is not always easy, especially when constantly bombarded with stuff at home and on the media – commercial and social. There are times when the clutter in the theatre seems miniscule given the enormity of the political stuff cluttering lives currently. What are we able to do with that? Can it even be sorted out successfully? And if one has already decluttered one’s stuff, is one ready to be absorbed in an object lesson about what has already been accomplished? Still “The Object Lesson” is an important exercise and worth the visit. Mr. Sobelle even invites an audience member on a dinner date with ice skating. 

The impact of Geoff Sobelle’s immersive experience is sometimes diminished by the nature of the piece itself – something both Mr. Sobelle and director David Neumann should continue to take into consideration. No matter where audience members sit, there are vignettes of “The Object Lesson” that simply cannot be observed. I missed the entire first part of the piece and there was nothing I could do to change my viewing point without standing up and blocking someone else’s view. When the performer is elevated, everyone can see. When he moves around on the level playing area, displacing audience members and setting up new “scenes,” there are inevitably audience members will miss the action completely. And, despite the offering in the sheet distributed by the NYTW staff urging the audience to “feel free to move around whenever you’d like,” that is not possible without be disruptive or blocking others’ ability to see what Mr. Sobelle is doing.

“The Object Lesson” concludes with the NYTW staff “ushering” the audience to the front of the space (the audience assumes a more traditional position and attitude) for Mr. Sobelle’s final object lesson. Without revealing too much, this ultimate disquisition involves legerdemain that counterpoints the wisdom of Shakespeare (“As You Like It”) and – of all things – the magical English nanny Mary Poppins. 


The scenic installation design for “The Object Lesson” is by Steven Dufala. Production photos by Joan Marcus.

“The Object Lesson” runs at New York Theatre Workshop (79 E. 4th Street New York, NY 10003) through Sunday, March 5, 2017 on the following schedule: Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Single tickets for are $65.00 and can be purchased at and by phone at 212-460-5475. Standard ticketing fees apply to all orders. Running time is 100 minutes without any intermission.