Walking into Studio Theatre’s top-floor Stage 4 for Geoff Sobelle’s solo performance/installation The Object Lesson, you might think you’d found the attic instead. The place is buried in stacks of cardboard boxes, most bearing mysterious notations in marker and many of them opened, plus assorted pieces of well-used furniture and junk. The ushers instruct you to find a seat, or something that can serve as one. You’re free to paw the debris; I fooled around with an old cassette recorder and a box of language tapes that I found on the floor while waiting for the show to start. It’s not clear where the stage is going to be until Sobelle enters. Once he does, he wanders around, narrating his explorations into a Dictaphone. You can move around, too, to keep him in your field of vision, though the sound of foam packing peanuts beneath your feet may distract your neighbors. Some distraction during The Object Lesson is inevitable, I’m afraid.
With his thinning hair and stocky build, Sobelle looks enough like a high school basketball coach that you’d never suspect he’s a L’École Jacques Lecoq–trained clown. He and creative partner Trey Lyford co-founded the Philadelphia-based physical theater outfit Rainpain 43. Their Charlie Chaplin–inspired piece, All Wear Bowlers, which Studio hosted several years ago, was a joyous but still thoughtful specimen of movement theater wherein the performers interacted brilliantly with projected film clips.
The Object Lesson is more static and meditative, asking us to accompany Sobelle—or the undefined character he’s playing—on a stream-of-consciousness journey of memory, its course presumably charted by whatever old curio he pulls out of a box. It’s unclear on the basis of a single performance to what extent each show is improvised. A few of his tricks for holding our attention are delightful, as when we hear only his half of a telephone conversation, and then the other half, in a surprising context, some moments later. There’s also a meandering anecdote, delivered in near-darkness, about a summer he spent in Paris that reaches a surprising payoff long after you’ve concluded he’s just filling time.
But at about 100 minutes with no intermission, the piece has too many dead spots in between the pearls to recommend. Some of these seem necessitated by the physical process of rearranging the room for Sobelle’s finale, an inventive bit involving a card catalog. (You might have to move to see any of it.) Then again, these lulls may also be part of Sobelle’s design, intended to induce a state where anticipation replaces our grounding in the present.
Whether or not tedium can be productive or enriching is an intriguing question. But for all but the most forgiving audiences, the promise of contemplating boredom while surrounded by junk is an awfully tough sell to lure you out of the house.
501 14th St. NW. $20–$55. (202) 332-3300. studiotheatre.org.