Arts

Broadway review

The Loud Life Lessons of ‘Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven’

Website:
The Daily Beast

Date:
December 10, 2019

Pulitzer winner Stephen Adly Guirgis’ play about an imperiled New York City women’s shelter features transphobia, violence, mental illness, and a goat. It’s best at its quietest.

There in the title is the crackling tone of playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis. Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven, directed by John Ortiz (opening tonight at the Atlantic Theater Company, to Dec 29), is set in a women’s halfway house in New York City. It is Guirgis’ first new play since his 2014 play, Between Riverside and Crazy, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2015, and is a co-production with Ortiz’s LAByrinth Theater Company.

The building is in peril because of gentrification, and the women who live there—many of whom are women of color—are similarly in various states of crisis and peril. The play dramatizes a critical moment of survival (or not) of both institution and inhabitants. This is not a quiet play, and its voice springs grittily from the harsh experiences of its characters.

An almost three-hour play which feels sprawlingly overlong, Halfway Bitches begins with a torrent of transphobic abuse aimed at Venus Ramirez (the excellent Esteban Andres Cruz). Just about every crude, bigoted, vicious, spiteful thing a bigot could throw at a trans person—with added threats to your physical safety and life—are thrown at Venus first by Taina (Viviana Valeria) and then veteran Sarge (Liza Colón-Zayas), who do not see Venus as a “real” woman, and therefore not welcome at the halfway house.

Nobody’s victim, Venus responds to their vile words, but not with the same ferocity. The argument may be that this would be what would “really” be said in such situations. If you don’t want to hear such bigotry voiced on stage, “real” or not, you may want to avoid this play.

That first scene sets the tone for the rest of the play, as a series of animated dramas sprout into both wrenching, tragic, and comedic life within the walls of the shelter. The set is designed by Narelle Simons, with small areas for the street outside on the edge of the stage. There is also an upper level, and much respect to the actors doing dramatic things up there; there was a precarious-sounding crack from the upper-level scenery when this critic saw it.

Colón-Zayas as Sarge is not just anti-Venus; she is a menacing ticking time bomb within her own relationship to Bella (Andrea Syglowski), who has just had their baby, and also a bully of Betty Woods (Kristina Poe), whom Sarge thinks is dirty and smelly.

Bella is uncomfortable with Sarge’s bigotry and behavior generally, and is close to her fellow drug-taker Venus. Taina has her own destabilizing force in the shape of her mentally ill mother Happy Meal Sonia (Wilemina Olivia-Garcia), leading to a powerful confrontation between them. Munchies (the brilliant Pernell Walker) has a secret connection to Mr. Mobo (Neil Tyrone Pritchard) who works at the center.

Elizabeth Rodriguez brings a determined stubbornness to Miss Rivera, who manages the center, secretly drinking from a hidden vodka bottle—just like one of her residents, the gentle and wily Wanda Wheels (Patrice Johnson Chevannes), who carries herself with a diva-ish grandeur, hiding a few show-business stories of times past.

There are men in the play, and what a mysterious bunch they are. Father Miguel (David Anzuelo) seems very wise and calming until he is threatened by an abusive husband determined to see his wife who’s at the center. His acolyte Mateo (Sean Carvajal) is determined to stay good, despite temptations to the opposite. A goat called Mr. Skittles makes an ill-fated entrance.

The almost three-hour span of the play stirs in as many social issues as it can into its duration, but the brilliant cast are at their best in evoking the women’s personal stories.

Elizabeth Canavan’s Rockaway Rosie seems ditzy and warm, until she reveals a tale of lost love, which turns out to be one of the play’s best moments. There will also be blood, at least two deaths, and a few secret assignations.

Later, the play suddenly swings super-oddly from the sagas of the women to—far too abruptly—the building’s future. Better is Colón-Zayas’ impressively freighted portrayal of Sarge’s meanness and later fear. One of its most intense scenes, beautifully and bravely played by Cruz and Poe, sees Venus bathe Betty. We see Miss Rivera defying the inevitable closure of the center, and Munchies furiously turning on Mr. Mobo and do-gooder social worker Jennifer (Molly Collier), and horribly (with again, a lot of freely voiced bigotry) on handyman Joey (Victor Almanzar).

The play’s fusillade of profanity-laced speeches may provide its loudest and most shocking moments. But its quieter scenes have the greater impact. Yes, Guirgis has an ear for the real and direct, and the excellent cast of Halfway Bitches bring it vibrantly to life. A better play would be shorter and more focused. The most piercing moments in Halfway Bitches are found when it takes a breath and modulates its volume.