Reviews NYCOff-Broadway Published 10 December 2019

Review: Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven at the Linda Gross Theater

Linda Gross Theater ⋄ 15th November – 29th December

Juan Ramirez finds Stephen Adly Guirgis’s newest play “intensely watchable” and “refreshingly nonjudgmental.”

Juan A. Ramirez
Elizabeth Canavan, Patrice Johnson Chevannes, Kara Young, and Benja Kay Thomas (Photo: Monique Carboni)

Elizabeth Canavan, Patrice Johnson Chevannes, Kara Young, and Benja Kay Thomas (Photo: Monique Carboni)

There’s probably something to be said about the fact that, as soon as the lights dimmed on this play’s poignant final scene, I told my friend I’d love to see it as a miniseries—something about binge culture and the Netflixification of media. Whatever the insidious meaning of my comment, the cast and crew behind Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven should know I meant it as a testament to the sheer watchability of their nearly three-hour look at the lives of residents in a women’s halfway house.

In this co-production between the Atlantic Theater and LAByrinth Theater companies, we’re thrust headfirst into a nasty fight that might be another play’s climax, but here is just an ordinary day in the life of an Upper West Side limbo for women trying to survive in a cupcake-laden neighborhood hostile to their struggles. The night’s talent show is derailed by Sarge’s (Liza Colón-Zayas) ferocious claim that Venus (Esteban Andres Cruz), a trans woman, is taking up resources meant for “real women.” It’s an uncomfortable start that pairs devastating disses with harshly toxic language—a hard-to-swallow (and a tad cloying in its shock value) blend the play thankfully leaves behind.

Once the onslaught of epithets gives way to actual dialogue, playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis casts a wide net over the character types inhabiting this volatile shelter. If there are archetypes–the surly Iraq vet, the beleaguered social worker, the sex worker with a drug problem–they’re rendered painfully real by a talented cast that finds nuance behind every barbed comment. In their precarious world where the possibility of the house shutting down looms large, their interactions, whether compassionate, threatening, or alienating, are their best chance at finding kinship.

Miss Rivera (a compassionate Elizabeth Rodriguez), the house’s tough-love overseer, fights for its denizens in ways heartbreakingly invisible to city officials. This is no small feat, as the constant violence, substance abuse, breakups, affairs and conspiracies among the 18-strong ensemble take their toll on everyone involved.

This includes Father Miguel (David Anzuelo), who struggles to reconcile his violent past with the house’s uncertain future. “There’s no saint without a past and no sinner without a future,” he tells a despairing custodian, though the line between saint and sinner is for him, not too clear. Among the other fallen and rising angels are Betty (a heartbreaking Kristina Poe), whose low self-esteem belies her artistic prowess; Queen Sugar (Benja Kay Thomas), a tell-it-like-it-is type who traffics in pyramid schemes; and Jennifer (Molly Collier), a social worker whose privileged guilt clashes with those around her.

Rolling along the house’s corridors is wheelchair-wielding Wanda (Patrice Johnson Chevannes), the house’s oldest resident with a glamorous past. While each actor exquisitely inhabits their role and merits their own notice, she creates a character. What she does with Wanda, perennially holding a spiked nutrition shake from the comfort of her chair, is nothing short of exhilarating—a fresh take on the truth-telling elder who finds dignity in her passivity. Stepping in to help residents, whether they like it or not, she gears up to conclude a life of exciting uncertainty with humanity and wit.

As the many plot lines–each intensely watchable–unfold, Guirgis quietly places alcohol as the problem and solution for nearly all of these women, social workers included, in a refreshingly nonjudgmental way. The women reach for their bottles when they can’t reach for much else. His treatment of drug abuse, however, becomes the play’s one predictable instance of cause-and-effect melodrama. If, as written, it’s a low reach for emotional impact, its consequences are deftly staged by John Ortiz’s compassionate direction.

The only definite misstep in an otherwise A-grade production is the inexplicably out-of-place transition music composed and designed by Elisheba Ittoop–a jarring pub-rock sound that has no home in this halfway outpost. With a set as functional and dynamic as Narelle Sissons’s, which allows the actors to roam through two of the house’s floors, as well as adjacent streets and auditorium corridors, this tonal blunder hardly registers.

That opening scene lingers in the mind, though. Not for the virulent insult-slinging but for the way each character, marginalized in their own way, has imperfectly appropriated identity politics buzzwords to their own ends. Guirgis backs up their invective with real concerns; they cite Title IX, call out white privilege, discuss the need for safe spaces, allege that non-Black Americans can’t “claim” Barack Obama. However selfishly they invoke these terms, they’re struggling to fit high-minded ideals into a reality that continues to leave them hopelessly destitute. It’s a tough watch, that first scene, but it’s a potent reckoning of anxieties that are deepened and, yes, made visible by the touching interactions that follow.


Juan A. Ramirez

Juan A. Ramirez is currently pursuing his Masters in Film and Media Studies at Columbia University. He has written film and theatre reviews and features for publications in New York and Boston and will continue to do so until every last person is annoyed.

Review: Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven at the Linda Gross Theater Show Info


Produced by Atlantic Theater & LAByrinth Theater

Directed by John Ortiz

Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis

Scenic Design Set: Narelle Sissons; costumes: Alexis Forte

Lighting Design Mary Louise Geiger

Sound Design Elisheba Ittoop

Cast includes Victor Almanzar, David Anzuelo, Elizabeth Canavan, Sean Carvajal, Patrice Johnson Chevannes, Molly Collier, Liza Colón-Zayas, Esteban Andres Cruz, Greg Keller, Wilemina Oliva-Garcia, Kristina Poe, Neil Tyrone Pritchard, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Andrea Syglowski, Benja Kay Thomas, Viviana Valeria, Pernell Walker, Kara Young

Link
Show Details & Tickets

Running Time 2 hours 45 minutes


the
Exeunt
newsletter


Enter your email address below to get an occasional email with Exeunt updates and featured articles.