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The Object Lesson at Bard

Theater review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Fri Dec 18th, 2015

Photos of the 2014 Brooklyn BAM production, courtesy of The New York Times 

Back in 1971, I recall walking into a Manhattan Soho exhibit to meet someone. I arrived first to see several hundred boxes covered in plain brown paper, neatly tied with string. The boxes, self-mailed to himself by the artist, were of varied sizes and piled into attractive, teetering shapes. They all bore colorful commemorative stamps (predominately from other countries), which back then was quite an achievement, since at that time one could argue (ex-postman poet Charles Bukowski did)that the United States possessed the ugliest stamps in the world (after Bulgaria, I would add).

Directed by David Neumann, Geoff Sobelle’snearly one-man show, The Object Lesson, is short on plot and language, but impishly freights profundity. Clever, ambitious, mildly amusing, absurd, and tongue-in-cheek, it’s the old clown story of the sad-sack re-invented for Americans, who have a deep romantic attachment to clutter and garbage.

The set is primarily cardboard boxes, hundreds of them with magic-marker scrawls like “Expired Passport Stamps,” “Books I’ve loved in long car rides across country,” “Returned love notes,” “girdles & candles,” yet my appetite for consuming such whimsy ended when I ran across the labored and obviously phony “Leftover TV dinners.” Bard’s LUMA Theater provides an ideal setting for this part-mime, mildly audience-interactive shtick, which at times employs the recorded voices of Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart to ironic effect.

The theme of loneliness through relating to trivial objects finds exploration through seemingly random boxes and their contents.The play contains but a single anecdotal romance that failed, yet it offers a mighty crescendo of the lonely bachelor preparing his date’s dinner salad by donning ice-stakes: he zanily cuts lettuce, carrots, and red pepper by tap-dancing on a table for the lady he wishes to impress; they marry, but break up, and the narcissistic sad-sack has no idea why he can’t relate to anyone.

Despite a plethora of disparate jokes, tragedy predominates. A man with several truckloads of junk portrays a man (in his self-imposed hell) who wanders through the humiliating detritus of his life as he pulls out an old cashmere sweater, twenty golf balls, piles of junk mail, Monopoly greenbacks, white peanut Styrofoam, rickety old lamps, a photo, you get the picture.

As in a happening, the audience is encouraged to wander about and chat with others, yet few did thison opening night,which enjoyed a sellout cheerful crowd of about two hundred sitting on cardboard boxes or standing to get a better view of Sobelle’s wrist action as he robustly brushed his teeth. This bachelor lives only in the past, and in that sense, becomes emblematic of the amnesiac disease that mires this country in cultural trash.

The climax utilizes the old clown box that has no bottom, as the music swings from Chopin to pop to a groaning industrial factory churning out electric loneliness for the masses: thosewired, ultimately, to darkness, refuse, oblivion, nothing. And we stand in the dark to applaud.

The play, sprinkled with genial humor, runs through Sunday at Bard College.