Astoria, that Greek town tucked away in the northwest corner of Queens, is not particularly known for its theater. But that’s about to change. For six nights, Evan Zes puts on a one-man comedy named Rent Control. Staged at the Greek Cultural Center, a basement theater that is so intimate it seats at most maybe 20 people (I swear some people’s living rooms are bigger than the entire space), an unassuming venue on its face, “Rent Control” is a tour-de-force of pure wit. Who would even think that Astoria could be a place to watch Off-Broadway plays that weren’t corny or amateur? Get your ticket because it’s happening!
Evan Zes (who I suspect shortened his long exotic Greek name to fit on a playbill) tells the tale of his arrival to New York City after graduating with an MFA from Harvard loaded with student debt to pursue every bartender’s dream of becoming an actor. The first order of business: rent an apartment. In a witty rollercoaster series of events and characters, he tells the tale of how he lands the dream apartment on the Upper East Side and how he loses it. In 75 intense minutes, he sums up his curriculum vitae as an aspiring actor in NYC and runs through the 80s, 90s, and 2000s to the present all the while narrating ironically how subletting an apartment that was never his to begin with allows him to keep on making a living to support his dream of becoming an actor. The plot twists when a side-deal on AirBNB with a Jay who he’s never met leads to fraud which leads to extortion by mob-sounding characters which leads to his winding up on a street in Astoria homeless with five black plastic bags in tow. And he does all this without an intermission.
Zes puts on a pants-splitting tour-de-force of hilarious New York caricatures that are hilarious because they are so true. He impersonates all the characters in this rags-to-rental tale starting from Sonia, the old miserable roommate whose ad he answers at Actors Equity, Doug the diet-pilled coked up real estate broker, to the Ukrainian super, Super Sally his wife, little old Miss Rosie the Romanian, Chang the 3-fingered laundry cleaner across the street, to Efren the Albanian fruitcake barber, the Guido extortioner Big Joey, Charise his other roommate, and a host of AirBNB renters with accompanying accents—Argentines, French, Germans, even New Jersey. It is his versatility as an actor to bring to life the gamut of New York character types that makes his performance so engaging. Not to mention his facial expressions. I could not stop laughing, and neither could the guy in front of me that belched laughter that was itself so contagious.
The script is packed with a succession of one-liners and self-deprecating jokes: MFA stands for another Mother F**ing Actor; the loneliness and sense of unaccomplishment that returning home to New York gives like getting whacked with a lead pipe on the back of the head; the pitiful life of an actor who makes no money, half-drunk on the way to the gym. What makes the script keep together is that Zes repeats the one-liners and accents of each character as well as predictable sound effects, the rubber ducky squeaking of his long hallway to the door, the AOL “You’ve Got Mail,” the ringtone of the cell phone.
Rent Control is smart, totally engaging, and tight.
It combines the wit of Aristophanes with the plot reversal of a Seinfeld episode.
But mostly it uses the stuff of Zes’ own life to make understated but satirical side comments about the pipe dream of making it as an actor, the cut-throat real estate market, gentrification, criminal identity theft and extortion. If it could be improved by anything, it would be to slow down the “plot” sequence narrated at the end; but it’s the complications of the convoluted subletting to subletters schemes that get to all the trouble. So scratch that. It was perfect! So hilarious it’s worth to go again. (And for $25 a ticket, you can!)
What makes Rent Control so funny it that we know it is all so true. That’s why we laugh at the predicaments and the ironies of New York living. It proves life is comedy and comedy is life. And weirdly, Astoria, Greek town, the place Evan at last finds a one-bedroom with a backyard, a propane barbeque grill, and a firepit, on the same street he passed out when he realized he lost his dream apartment has become a place you can watch Off-Broadway theater that rivals Avenue Q without even taking the subway. No fancy sets, only an armchair, just a projector, some sound effects, and raw penetrating comedy, well-written, well-performed. The show proves you can travel all over trying to find something and return home to find it.
Rent Control is being performed next weekend for a limited engagement.
Sunday 11/5 at 5:00pm
Friday 11/10 at 8:00pm
Saturday 11/11 at 8:00pm
Sunday 11/12 at 5:00pm
Get tickets at the Greek Cultural Center (by the way, it’s moved from the basement on Hoyt Avenue to a basement on 30th Street,2680 30th St. (lower level) Astoria, NY 11102 just one block from 31st Street and the 30th Avenue subway stop, which by the way, is not stoppable at because it is under construction till spring 2018)