Theatre Review: ‘Rent Control’ at FringeNYC

Posted By: Marc Miller on: August 18, 2016
(Originally ran in NY Theatre Guide, August, 2016)

I suppose every seasoned New Yorker has his own favorite rent control tale. Mine concerns a playwright who wrote one hit in the 1940s and moved immediately into a nice apartment. A rider in his lease decreed that his rent couldn’t be raised until he had direct elevator access. The elevator stopped one floor short, and when the building did an engineering study, it found that raising it would be prohibitively expensive. Not rent control, as mandated by the NYC Housing Authority, but an effective variation: the guy continued paying eighty dollars a month into the 1980s—for a penthouse on Central Park South.

In a town where housing is at such a premium, who doesn’t love a good apartment tale?

That’s a doozy of a story, but no more bizarre than the one told by Evan Zes in his lively autobiographical one-man show, “Rent Control.” On a set consisting of a Victorian armchair, with occasional and helpful explanatory projections in back, Zes unfurls a whopper of a rent control anecdote, all about how he managed to remain in a two-bedroom on 80th between Second and Third for 15 years. Zes, who’s small, wiry, and scruffy, hails from San Francisco, another impossible environment for apartments, where in 1993 he “majored in barbecuing drunk.” Aimless, and with no discernible talents, he got a job in a toy store, where a newly discovered gift for clowning around for shoppers’ kids inspired him to start auditioning. He kept getting parts, then an agent, and moved to pre-Craigslist New York, where the best apartment source for a struggling actor was the bulletin board at the Actor’s Equity Lounge, or, as he puts it, “the Louuuunge.”

He lucked into the empty bedroom at the five-floor walk-up on 80th, which he shared with the excessively unappetizing Sonia. Zes is good at voices, and the raspy, bitter Sonia is a highlight. Her misery at being a backstage dresser at “The Donkey Show” (a late-’90s disco “Midsummer Night’s Dream”—you had to be there) led her to give up on New York, informing Zes at the last minute that the apartment wasn’t really hers, and that she was subletting from a woman who’d also given up on New York and moved to New Zealand. He contacted the woman and discovered that the $800 a month he’d been paying Sonia was for a $900 apartment. Jackpot: He now had a rent-controlled two-bedroom all to himself.

Zes has a cheerfully profane, blithely fatalistic way of narrating all of this, and when the plot thickens, it allows him to do more voices. There’s Ella, the frail, sweet-and-sour downstairs neighbor; Big Joey, the landlord, a possibly criminal bully; Chang, the giggly laundry owner across the street; and maybe a dozen others, all done so evocatively, we can pretty much picture them. (Eventually, we see Ella in a projection, and she’s just as we imagined.) He might have lingered in rent control paradise indefinitely, but he got greedy. First, renting the second bedroom out to friends, then to strangers; then, glomming onto Craigslist and Airbnb as they flowered, he started gouging tenants for increasingly short-term stays. “I’m a lying scumbag,” he shrugs, and he needed the money, as his career was going nowhere. His agent considered him a character actor, and to get parts, he needed to be balder and slovenlier. “I’m a problem solver,” he says, “so I decided to start drinking heavily.”

A lot of the lines are like that—not always laugh-out-loud, but chipper and rude and pointed. He’s no kinder to himself than to the users and charlatans surrounding him (he’s especially funny when evoking a snooty director he has to work with). We feel for him as a rent deal he’s made goes scarily awry, turning spoilers here, but let’s say somebody gets scammed, and the fate of the now $1,000 apartment becomes dangerously unstable. Let’s also say Zes now lives in Astoria, where he’s happier, friendly with the local Greeks, and still throwing drunken barbecues. I’d like to have known more about what the old apartment looked like, how he ever managed to cohabit with the impossible Sonia, and what his life was like there—the neighborhood haunts, the neighbors, the changing environment. What he does share, though, is tasty.

In a town where housing is at such a premium, who doesn’t love a good apartment tale? “Rent Control” also dwells on identity, as Zes sees his friends marry and have kids and careers while he remains in post- adolescent limbo, devoting more and more of his time to apartment management, never letting anyone get close to him—too many short-term tenants to deal with. He’s an engaging host, and the pretty-happy ending is very gratifying.

I once had an in on a rent-controlled one-bedroom on East 73rd, where the bathtub was in the kitchen and the rent was $137. In the end, I didn’t get it, but it made a good party story, and Zes’s plight as spun out in “Rent Control” will make another. Note to New York renters: wherever you are, it’s probably cheaper and better than wherever you would move to. Stay there, and then maybe demand will fall, and then maybe rents will. In the meantime, enjoy Zes’ snappily related apartment horror story, and take it as a cautionary tale.

Advisory: Language may not be appropriate for children.

Running Time: 1 hour and 20 minutes.

“Rent Control” is currently playing through August 27, 2016 at Under St. Marks as a part of FringeNYC. For tickets, click here. For more information on FringeNYC, click here.