'Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven': Theater Review

Courtesy of Monique Carboni
From left: Elizabeth Canavan, Liza Colón-Zayas, Kara Young and Pernell Walker in 'Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven'
A bit overstuffed, but teeming with life.
1/5/2020

Stephen Adly Guirgis, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 'Between Riverside and Crazy,' explores the troubled lives of the residents and staffers of a women's halfway house in this world premiere.

Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis has long specialized in putting a spotlight on society's downtrodden and disaffected with such acclaimed plays as Our Lady of 121st Street, Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Between Riverside and Crazy. But he's never worked with so large a canvas as his latest drama, receiving its world premiere in a co-production from off-Broadway's Atlantic Theater Company and LAByrinth Theater Company. Featuring no less than 18 performers playing 20 characters, not to mention a live goat, Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven has a necessarily epic quality. It feels like a Street Scene (which won the Pulitzer in 1929) for our times.

Set in a rundown halfway house for women on New York's Upper West Side, the nearly three-hour work assembles a dizzying array of characters and situations, presented in short, episodic scenes. It's clear from the opening minutes, in which announcements are made of such activities as an "Incest Survivors Meeting" and a "You, Me and Hepatitis C" workshop, that the residents have had difficult lives indeed.

They're a wildly colorful lot, including emotionally troubled Happy Meal Sonia (Wilemina Olivia-Garcia) and her devoted adult daughter Taina (Viviana Valeria); the tough-as-nails war veteran Sarge (Lisa Colón-Zayas, delivering one of the standout performances), whose softer side is revealed via her love for single mom and former stripper Bella (Andrea Syglowski); the elegant Wanda Wheels (Patrice Johnson Chevannes), a former actress so named for the wheelchair she uses, who regales the others with stories of her past, including having once dated Noam Chomsky; the morbidly obese Betty Woods (Kristina Poe), a self-published author of erotic fiction, who alienates the others because of her refusal to bathe; Queen Sugar (Benja Kay Thomas), desperately attempting to improve her finances via an Amway-style pyramid scheme dubbed "FAM-WAY"; and Venus (Esteban Andrews Cruz), a trans woman targeted by Sarge, among others, because they consider her a man who shouldn't be taking up space in a home for women.  

Then there's the staff, including the African-born Mr. Mobo (Neil Tyrone Pritchard), who doesn't resist the seduction of the sexually aggressive resident Munchies (Pernell Walker); Joey (Victor Almanzar), a married custodian who finds himself falling in love with Venus; social worker Jennifer (Molly Collier), whose well-heeled upbringing and "Peppermint Patty" style of dressing alienates the residents; and the beleaguered head of the facility, Miss Rivera (a terrific Elizabeth Rodriguez, Orange Is the New Black), who alleviates her professional and personal frustrations by pouring copious amounts of vodka into her coffee cup. It's a habit she shares with Wanda Wheels, who similarly spikes her Ensure. Another regular presence is Father Miguel (David Anzuelo), the sort of urban priest equally capable of delivering thoughtful counseling or violently subduing an abusive husband (Greg Keller) who periodically shows up demanding to see his wife.

There's an awful lot going on in the overstuffed drama, whose major plot elements include the mysterious disappearance of one of the residents and an episode involving a stolen goat that suffers a grisly (thankfully offstage) end. Toward the conclusion, the playwright makes a compelling point about society's misplaced priorities with the introduction of a detective (Keller) and politician's aide (Slyglowski) who show up at the halfway house, not to investigate the case of the missing resident but rather the purloined goat.

The sheer plethora of social ills on display, including drug addiction, alcoholism, sexual abuse, mental illness, domestic abuse, PTSD and governmental indifference to the lower rungs of society, proves a bit overwhelming. Guirgis, who usually writes with a tighter focus, has trouble keeping all of his narrative balls in the air, with the result that while some characters and plot elements are vividly rendered, others are given short shrift and make little impression.

John Ortiz, a veteran actor who has appeared in several of the playwright's works and is here making his off-Broadway directing debut, doesn't always prove adept in terms of what to fully emphasize in the staging. But he does elicit excellent work from the large ensemble, who deliver (for the most part) deeply lived-in performances despite the extensive changes apparently made to the play throughout previews.

There are many powerful moments, such as a monologue delivered by the colorfully named Rockaway Rosie (Elizabeth Canavan) about a former fiancé who ran away with her life savings and subsequently married another woman, with whom he lived just down the block; and Joey's anguished conversation with Father Miguel concerning his confusion about loving someone who "got a dick." The playwright's talent for pungent, colorfully entertaining dialogue is on ample display, and his ability to balance dark humor with stunning bursts of emotionalism lifts the work above what, in lesser hands, could have come across like a profane sitcom.

The production literally overflows the proscenium, with the action taking place not only on Narelle Sissons' expertly dilapidated two-level set but also in areas in front of and on the sides of the stage, while Alexis Forte's suitably frumpy costumes provide a further dose of realism.

Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven, whose title stems from a poem recited by one of the teenage residents, doesn't fully live up to its considerable ambitions. But those ambitions are not to be taken lightly, nor for granted, in this work bursting with emotional life. The characters' rich humanity comes through loud and clear onstage, forcing us to confront a reality we might otherwise choose to avoid.     

Venue: Linda Gross Theater, New York
Cast: Victor Almanzar, David Anzuelo, Elizabeth Canavan, Sean Carvajal, Patrice Johnson Chevannes, Molly Collier, Liza Colón-Zayas, Esteban Andres Cruz, Greg Keller, Wilemina Olivia-Garcia, Kristina Poe, Neil Tyrone Pritchard, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Andrea Syglowski, Benja Kay Thomas, Viviana Valeria, Pernell Walker, Kara Young
Playwright: Stephen Adly Guirgis
Director: John Ortiz
Set designer: Narelle Sissons
Costume designer: Alexis Forte
Lighting designer: Mary Louise Geiger
Music and sound designer: Elisheba Ittoop
Presented by Atlantic Theater Company, LAByrinth Theater Company