‘Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven’ Theater Review: Stephen Adly Guirgis Delivers the Funniest, Saddest Play of the Year

The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright delivers a female “Iceman Cometh” for this century

Last Updated: December 10, 2019 @ 4:44 AM

Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven” is the funniest, saddest play of the year, with at least a dozen  characters who go straight to your heart. This three-hour play, which had its world premiere Monday at Off Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company, features 18 actors under the direction of John Ortiz, and Guirgis wraps them all in a riveting, often rousing “Grand Hotel” framework.

Only it’s not a grand hotel or even a Motel 6. These characters live in a New York City women’s shelter on the verge of collapse, and only occasionally is their collective plight relieved by help from a priest (David Anzuelo) with a violent past and three social workers who are much less than perfect. Never is “Halfway Bitches” more ambivalent than its portrait of this supporting trio. There’s the Nigerian immigrant (Neil Tyrone Pritchard) who runs the place and pleasures himself on the side, the chief social worker (Elizabeth Rodriguez) who drinks too much, and her assistant (Molly Collier), just graduated from Columbia University and brimming with white female privilege. They could all be better at their job, but each of them is the only thing standing between compromised dignity and a life on the streets for these homeless women.

Guirgis gives these three characters, and others, big speeches about important topics. Usually in plays and musicals (think “The Inheritance” and “Jagged Little Pill”), these talks on progressive ideas are there to rouse the liberal audience, even when the words spoken have little to do with the story going on around them. Many of the speeches in “Halfway Bitches” are also set pieces, but they’re always organic, and they work because the cast, under Ortiz’s direction, is uniformly brilliant. Also, Guirgis has established an environment that makes such unhappy talk the most normal thing in the world. And most important, what’s said on stage is often funny as hell.

There’s obviously much said about homelessness and racism in “Halfway Bitches,” but also the treatment of military veterans (Liza Colon-Zayas’s Sarge is a lesbian who fought in Iraq), trans rights (Esteban Andres Cruz’s Venus wears a dress with defiance), morbid obesity (Kristina Poe’s Betty is so ashamed of her body she avoids showers), drug addiction (Andrea Syglowski’s Bella shoots up while her young baby cries), spousal abuse (Greg Keller’s husband demands to see his battered wife), teenage abandonment (Kara Young’s Melba and Sean Carvajal’s Mateo don’t have a chance), mental illness (Wilhemina Olivia-Garcia’s Sonia clearly belongs in a hospital, not a shelter), life on the down low (Victor Almanzar’s janitor leads a triple life), and euthanasia (Patrice Johnson Chevannes’ Wanda is ready to check out despite an illustrious past in the theater).

Never has the stage at the Atlantic Theater Company been more alive with action. Ortiz even uses the aisles and the space in front of the stage to set several scenes.

Playing two friends desperate for money and respect, Benja Kay Thomas and Pernell Walker can’t deliver a line without giving it a loud comic spin. With their complicated weaves and gold loop earrings (costumes by Alexis Forte), Thomas’ Queen Sugar and Walker’s Munchies border on a popular cliché from the movies. These two actors prevent Queen Sugar and Munchies from being anything but real women. Ditto Elizabeth Canavan’s Rosie, the sort of Irish character we feel we’ve seen before but now delivered with self-deprecating humor.

On the comedy front, Guirgis doesn’t mess around. “Halfway Bitches” opens with one of the shelter’s daily therapy sessions, which in this instance is also something of a variety show, and the transsexual Venus is soon on the chopping block. The 25-year-old Taina (Viviana Valeria) doesn’t like the way fellow residents belittle her mentally disturbed mother, and Sarge thinks Venus should take her “ugly, non-passing fake she-male junkie ass” out of a shelter designed for women.

Guirgis doesn’t give these characters one-liners. He stuffs each mouth with a fusillade of explosives. Typically, Guirgis’ plays begin loud and funny. “Halfway Bitches” is no exception, but here the pathos begins to sift in a little earlier than usual, although the theatrical fireworks are never far behind. A plot device involving a live goat, stolen from a city project up on Riverside Park, runs the gamut. It’s outlandishly ridiculous and ultimately downright pathetic.

“Halfway Bitches” is a female “Iceman Cometh” for the 21st century, but watching it doesn’t feel like five hours — or even three. You may feel you’ve had just enough time to get to know, and care about, these women. Guirgis ends with a simple line that all New Yorkers hear half a dozen times a day on the street. After seeing Guirgis’ play, you will never look at that homeless person quite the same way.

“Halfway Bitches” is a coproduction with LAByrinth Theater Company.

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