Broadway director Matthew Warchus found himself living with rodents, maggots and bedbugs in his pricey West End Avenue rental
Upper West Side On April 11 of last year, the musical "Matilda" opened to some of the best reviews of the Broadway season. But any celebration at the $15,000-a-month Upper West Side brownstone that the show's producers rented for the family of director Matthew Warchus was tempered by the presence of uninvited guests.
A week after the opening, Warchus "reported that he saw a nine-inch rat in the kitchen of the apartment," according to papers in a lawsuit over the infestation in New York State Supreme Court. "On the same day he also reported that maggots were found in the sofa of the apartment."
Bedbugs had already made an appearance at the apartment, at 615 West End Ave.
While landlord-tenant disputes over rodents are all too common in the city, they don't usually center around such pricey properties or high-profile people. And they don't often start with accusations from the landlord, which in this case accuses one of Broadway's biggest names of inviting the rats into the property.
The landlord, Shira White, hired an exterminator to catch the rat while the producers -- Matilda Broadway L.P. and Dodger Properties LLC -- paid to eradicate the bedbugs. But when the nine-month lease expired and the Warchuses returned to England, instead of returning the security deposit, White's company, NINIS LLC, sued Warchus and the producers.
White claimed that the Warchuses failed to keep the apartment in good condition, violating the lease. "Virtually every person who visited the apartment commented negatively on the dirty, unsanitary conditions; the horrendous clutter; and mess of the apartment," according to the landlord's complaint.
"It was concluded that the rat actually was brought into the apartment" in a chair in which it was nesting, White said in the suit. (The tenants supplied the furniture.) She claimed she couldn't rent the apartment after the Warchuses left because of the "unsanitary conditions" and a requirement that she disclose the bedbug history to prospective tenants. She seeks more than $450,000 in damages.
In counterclaims, the "Matilda" producers blamed White and her teenage son, who were both living in the basement and ground floor, for the infestation. White "was asked to maintain a more sanitary garbage disposal area, but failed to take any action," the "Matilda" producers said. She was also told "about the unsanitary conditions caused by her son's frequent and rowdy weekend parties (which occurred while she was traveling), and again failed to take remedial action."
There was no heat when the Warchuses moved in in December 2012 and they had to sleep in their coats for the first nights, the producers' complaint said.
They seek return of their $15,000 deposit, plus interest, and damages of at least $100,000.
"The building was advertised as a charmingly restored 19th century brownstone," the producers said in court papers. "In fact it was poorly designed, badly and cheaply renovated, and had problems that one would not find tolerable in a college dormitory, let alone in a triplex apartment renting at $15,000 dollars per month."
Lawyers for both sides declined to comment and White didn't respond to an email. The producers claimed that the landlord "made harassing phone calls" to Warchus's wife, Lauren Ward, who played the teacher Miss Honey, as she was preparing to perform. Producers also claimed the Warchuses were harassed about cleanliness during showings to prospective tenants.
White's complaints "focused on things that were transitory, trivial and understandable given that the occupant had three young children, was directing a Broadway musical in which his wife had a prominent role, and that the family often had insufficient notice of showings of the apartment," the producers said in court papers.
In February, Warchus filed a motion to dismiss the suit against him. "Matilda" rented the brownstone, he said and he wasn't on the lease. And he's an independent contractor of the production, not an employee, and while living in England he wasn't validly served with the suit.
The case is ongoing, although Morrell Berkowitz, the lawyer for the landlord, has applied to withdraw. He referred in a filing to unpaid invoices that "have been outstanding for a lengthy period of time."
Karen Wohlforth, a New York lawyer and former family court referee who isn't involved, said it will be difficult for White prove that "Matilda" is responsible for the uninvited guests, particularly given the citywide plague of bedbugs.
"Unless the bedbugs can testify," she said.
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