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Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven

"There isn't a woman here who doesn't wish she had a destination."
—Wanda Wheels

Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven
(L–R) Sean Carvajal and Kara Young (Photo: Ahron R. Foster)
. Five years after Between Riverside and Crazy (review), Stephen Adly Guirgis is still thinking about the Upper West Side. References to Manhattan's topmost neighborhoods have long populated Guirgis's theatrical universe, from the Harlem funeral home in Our Lady of 121st Street (review } to the neighborhoods no longer accessible to the Rikers inmates of Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train (review).

One concern for the playwright is how existential extremes collide within this narrow geographic area. On one block, even in one building, affluence and privilege can clash with struggle and disadvantage. Riverside highlighted one man's battle to save his rent-controlled apartment and his place in a building where he was increasingly out of place.

Guirgis's new play, Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven, could take place mere blocks away, perhaps even at the same time, in a women's halfway house where residents are constantly reminded that any misbehavior could give the neighbors ammunition to shut the home down. This messaging offers the women a constant reminder: they are not wanted there, and to nearby property owners, their mere existence is offensive.

Working from this disheartening baseline, Guirgis brings his trademark blend of bombast, wit, and empathy to weave a story about the many triumphs and defeats experienced by the home's dozen or so residents, and the bonds that link them. Under the smart direction of John Ortiz, Halfway Bitches is sprawling in its ambitious complexity but delivers a thoughtful, multidimensional portrayal of its many characters. The premiere production at Atlantic Theater Company (co-produced with LAByrinth) benefits from the commanding performances of its impressive cast, many of them previous Guirgis collaborators.

It is difficult to identify a single protagonist, and though some roles ultimately occupy more space than others, the work is a true ensemble piece. The plot contains many threads that are and aren't disparate. An underlying theme is how even as the residents naturally divide up into units like friend groups, families, or romantic relationships, their existence is, for better or for worse, connected and interdependent.

Arguably the most central role is Sarge, strikingly portrayed by Liza Colón-Zayas with a fiery intensity and stark bluntness. A veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, Sarge tries to put the violence of her past behind her as she looks towards a future with Bella (Andrea Syglowski), but is held back by her tendency towards violence and anger. She is especially triggered by a transgender resident, Venus (Esteban Andres Cruz), and Betty (Kristina Poe), who has trouble with her personal hygiene. These two start to bond in part because of their shared experience at the receiving end of Sarge's animosity.

We also see a kinship arise between the three younger residents of the home. Little Melba (Kara Young), a girl with a gift for poetry, was forced to grow up too fast by desperate circumstances. Taina (Viviana Valeria) has made significant sacrifices to support her mentally ill mother (Wilemina Olivia-Garcia). Mateo (Sean Carvajal) looks for family in the other residents as own mother, bedridden by dementia, becomes less of a presence in his life.

There isn't room here to recap all the premises of this world, which also includes other residents (played by Elizabeth Canavan, Patrice Johnson Chevannes, Benja Kay Thomas, and Pernell Walker) and an assortment of staff members (Victor Almanzar, David Anzuelo, Molly Collier, Neil Tyrone Pritchard, and Elizabeth Rodriguez).

However, even the characters not discussed in detail here still matter. It is a triumph of Guirgis's script that nearly each of so many roles feels thought out and significant in some way. Halfway Bitches shares some DNA with recent ensemble TV shows such as Orange is the New Black and GLOW, but Guirgis uses the immediacy of theatrical space to dive in deeper, faster. This is enhanced by the straightforward, realistic production design by Narelle Sissons (sets), Alexis Forte (costumes), Mary Louise Geiger (lights), and Elisheba Ittoop (sound). The way that the playwright spreads a wealth of opportunities among such a large cast is distinctive and notable.

It's less surprising that the performers are able to honor those opportunities, but they still deserve praise for doing so, as does Ortiz for his smooth guidance of so many moving pieces. Colón-Zayas and Johnson Chevannes, who offers a beguiling combination of melancholy and mischievousness as Wanda, act as the primary lightning rods amongst the residents. As the house's suffer-no-fools director Miss Rivera, Elizabeth Rodriguez has to spend too much time confronting unseen characters over the phone, but she shines when engaging her cast mates.

The play can often feel like a roller coaster, with plenty of whiplash as we veer between moments of joy, hope, and genuine connection and those of defeat, sadness, and conflict. All the more disorienting is how Guirgis can, when he so chooses, eke humor out of either.

It is interesting, and not uncomplicated, to consider the responses when such comedy is deployed for a theatergoing audience with more privilege than many of the characters. Some of Guirgis's humor seems designed to prompt examination of our reactions and positions. I'm less certain if he considers the tension that results when one's reactions differ noticeably from those of other viewers, but I suspect he does.

True, Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven is full verging on overstuffed, and the profanity-laden script will alienate some. Unfortunately, the language and run time caused several people sitting near me to leave at intermission. But from its group opening to the haunting solitary image that closes the play, Guirgis vigorously questions the limits of empathy and our capacity to care for one another, especially when that "another" is someone who is "an other" to us based on their race, class, or gender. As he speaks through this rich ensemble, it would do us well to listen.

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Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven
by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Directed by John Ortiz

with Victor Almanzar (Joey Fresco), David Anzuelo (Father Miguel), Elizabeth Canavan (Rockaway Rosie), Sean Carvajal (Mateo), Patrice Johnson Chevannes (Wanda Wheels), Molly Collier (Jennifer), Liza Colón-Zayas (Sarge), Esteban Andres Cruz (Venus Ramirez), Greg Keller (Nicky/Detective Sullivan), Wilemina Olivia-Garcia (Happy Meal Sonia), Kristina Poe (Betty Woods), Neil Tyrone Pritchard (Mr. Mobo), Elizabeth Rodriguez (Miss Rivera), Andrea Syglowski (Bella/Councilwoman Golden), Benja Kay Thomas (Queen Sugar), Viviana Valeria (Taina), Pernell Walker (Munchies), and Kara Young (Little Melba Diaz)
Scenic Design: Narelle Sissons
Costume Design: Alexis Forte
Lighting Design: Mary Louise Geiger
Sound Design and Original Compositions: Elisheba Ittoop
Fight Direction: Unkledave's Fight House
Animal Director and Trainer: William Berloni
Production Stage Manager: Chris de Camillis
Assistant Stage Manager: Norman Anthony Small
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes with an intermission
A co-production of Atlantic Theater Company and LAByrinth Theater Company at Atlantic's Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street (between 8th and 9th Avenues)
Tickets: From $70;, 866-811-4111, or in person at the theater
From 11/13/2019; opened 12/9/2019; closing 12/29/2019
Performance times: Tuesdays at 7 pm, Wednesdays at 8 pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 2 and 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm. Additional Sunday evening performances at 7:30 pm on 12/1, 12/15, and 12/30; Monday evening performance at 7 pm on 12/23; Wednesday afternoon performance at 2 pm on 12/18. No performances on Tuesday, 12/24, and Wednesday, 12/25
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 12/5/2019 performance

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