A row of seats has been ripped out of the auditorium at Primary Stages: Walt Spangler's set spills into the audience, the suggestion of a fire escape occupying space where some more seats once were, about three rows from the stage. Crammed into this corner of the theatre is the tiny apartment occupied by Rosario, the hero of Edwin Sanchez's lyrical and affecting new play Barefoot Boy with Shoes On: a set of bunk beds plus another cot, a TV, and a wall-full of miscellaneous paraphernalia, some of it religious. Rosario lives here with his father and his grandfather, a minuscule hovel barely large enough to contain his meager possessions, let alone his dreams.

For them, Rosario needs grand, unfettered space; in Mr. Spangler's remarkable set, which is a sort of 3-D model of Rosario's view of the world, he gets it. Far off to the left is a dark, shadowy corner where his onetime girlfriend Vicky now lives with a hard-nosed New York City cop; near this metaphorical no-mans-land are a couple of chairs representing the office of Vicky's doctor. Occupying centerstage is the big, opulent apartment of a rich gay white man named Morris: just a couple of expensive-looking pieces, actually, sprawled leisurely and indolently across the larger part of the stage, backed by some tall steel frames that represent the floor-to-ceiling windows of Morris's living room. We don't get to see the spectacular views of park or river that these windows undoubtedly command, however; this is Rosario's world, and so the windows only look one way--in.

Vicky is pregnant. Rosario has focused all of his hopes and energies on fulfilling one goal: to give his unborn son everything that he never had. And he is prepared to do whatever he must to achieve this goal, including turning his back on his family, his heritage, and his most cherished values.

He finds an unexpected accomplice, and mentor, in Morris: from this man, who is materially wealthy beyond Rosario's imagination but utterly bankrupt morally and emotionally, he learns that only ruthlessness and determination lead to success. In Morris's world, denying and repressing one's own essence is not hypocrisy but efficacy (witness his own secret and repressed homosexuality); the ends always justify the means in this savage philosophy. And so naïve Rosario comes to learn the workings of the American Dream from one of its masters.

Barefoot Boy with Shoes On shows us how dreams and nightmares collide on the margins of society: the lives of people like Rosario are so invisible to us in the great American middle class that we don't recognize the power of urges like desperation and envy. It's neither comfortable nor easy to sit through this play, but it's finally completely affecting. What Mr. Sanchez does here--with poetic precision--is to allow us to see the world through someone else's eyes. This is why Mr. Spangler's set is such a triumph, by the way, because it encapsulates the author's intention with such visceral impact.

Mr. Spangler's is not the only artistic contribution, of course; Mr. Sanchez is splendidly served by Primary Stages's production in every department. This includes Debra Stein's simple but evocative costumes and Deborah Constantine's subtle lighting; as well as the company of six actors, led by Nelson Vasquez in an impassioned and memorable turn as Rosario. At the helm of this production is Primary Stages's artistic director Casey Childs; his work here is outstanding.

In the end, Mr. Sanchez leaves it for us to decide whether Rosario is a hero or not: what's best about this play is its refusal to judge anyone in it. Like the contradictory image that gives the play its title, there is nothing straightforward about the world depicted in Barefoot Boy with Shoes On. As Rosario learns from Morris, after selling him one of his socks, it's possible to have nothing and to have something at the same time. The trick is figuring out which is which.