HALFWAY BITCHES GO STRAIGHT TO HEAVEN

 

 

By Brian Scott Lipton

 

Few of us would volunteer to spend three hours, perhaps even three minutes, with a group of foul-mouthed, potentially violent ex-cons, drug addicts and homeless women. Fortunately, art doesn’t always imitate life, so I suggest you immediately grab a ticket for Stephen Adly Guirgis’ often-hilarious (and quite profane), deeply humane and ultimately heart-wrenching Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven, a co-production of the always innovative LAByrinth Theater Company and the Atlantic Theater Company. It’s easily one of the best plays of 2019.

As has long been his wont, Guirgis doesn’t do things nice and easy (to quote Tina Turner), and this play – his first in five years, since winning the Pulitzer Prize for Between Riverside and Crazy – is almost an act of hubris. The sprawling work introduces us to nearly 20 characters, both residents and staff members of Hope House, a government-funded residence for women providing transitional shelter and support for women in need in New York City (superbly designed by Narelle Sissons).

While some of these characters are painted in very broad strokes and others with much finer brushes, we feel like we’ve gotten to know each of them in a substantive way by the play’s end. Intriguingly, Guirgis gives us significant back stories into some of their pasts; in other cases, we don’t really know why they’ve ended up in Hope House. Still, we discover almost everyone’s dreams and hopes for the future, most of which we sadly suspect will dissolve like soap bubbles.

 

 

Moreover, while Guirgis stresses that some of his characters are their own worst enemies, he also wags his finger firmly, if somewhat gently, at a system that fails these women by not providing significant funding or staff for the facility, as well as the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) movement that grows stronger each day as more of New York’s formerly poor neighborhoods become hubs of gentrifications, and where a new Starbucks takes priority over much-needed social services.

Director John Ortiz (a fantastic actor himself) has done a brilliant job casting the work, so that each performer’s work feels fully grounded in reality, and each actor fully commits to what Guirgis has handed them, much of which must be extraordinarily difficult to play on a daily basis.

I don’t have space to single out everyone in the ensemble, but special kudos must go to the stunning Liza Colon-Zayas as the tough-as-nails Sarge, a military veteran who simply can’t re-adjust to civilian life; Patrice Johnson Chevannes as the elegant, worldly Wanda, an elderly former Broadway chorine so dissatisfied with her current circumstance she fervently wishes to die; Elizabeth Canavan as Rockaway Rosie, a good-hearted, slightly meek woman whose life has taken a much different turn than intended; Esteban Andres Cruz as the troubled, transgendered Venus; Wilhelmina Olivia-Garcia as the mentally unstable yet sometimes cruel Sonia; and Elizabeth Rodriguez as the house’s overworked, sometimes brusque administrator Miss Rivera, whose dedication to her job may have cost her the loss of her family.

 

 

The show’s title, by the way, comes from the name of rap/poem performed by the precocious teenager Little Melba (a marvelous Kara Young) early in the show. And it’s a fitting sentiment: for even if all of these women have done less-than-admirable things in their lives – whether or not it was their “fault” – we wish them at least an afterlife of peace and tranquility.

 

Photos: Monique Carboni

 

Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven continues through Sunday, December 22 at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20th Street). For tickets, visit.atlantictheater.org or call 866-811-4111.

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