TheaterMania Logo
Home link
Reviews

Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven Could Easily Go Straight to Netflix

Stephen Adly Guirgis debuts his sprawling comedy-drama at Atlantic Theater Company.

Patrice Johnson Chevannes (Wanda Wheels), Elizabeth Canavan (Rockaway Rosie), Benja Kay Thomas (Queen Sugar), Pernell Walker (Munchies), Victor Almanzar (Joey Fresco), Liza Colón-Zayas (Sarge), Andrea Syglowski (Bella), Neil Tyrone Pritchard (Mr. Mobo), Wilemina Olivia-Garcia (Happy Meal Sonia), Sean Carvajal (Mateo), Kara Young (Little Melba Diaz), Viviana Valeria (Taina), and Esteban Andres Cruz (Venus) star in Stephen Adly Guirgis's Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven, directed by John Ortiz, at Atlantic Theater Company.
(© Monique Carboni)

Sometimes you encounter a play that could easily spawn a new play for each of the characters. In the case of Stephen Adly Guirgis's Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven, that would be 20 plays (if you don't count the goat). The people Guirgis brings to the stage are just so fully realized that it is easy to forgive this three-hour comedy-drama for feeling like a sprawling pilot for a Netflix series. Featuring some of the best actors in New York giving unforgettable performances, Halfway Bitches is not only worth your time, but leaves you wanting more.

It is set around a women's transitional home on Manhattan's Upper West Side, where wealthy neighbors and realtors are always looking for an excuse to shutter the facility. Miss Rivera (Elizabeth Rodriguez) administers the home with the help of Father Miguel (David Anzuelo), Nigerian transplant Mr. Mobo (Neil Tyrone Pritchard), and Columbia social work grad Jennifer (a delightfully flustered Molly Collier). Janitor Joey Fresco (Victor Almanzar) is always ready with a mop and (should a fight break out) some muscle.

Esteban Andres Cruz (center) plays Venus in Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven.
(© Monique Carboni)

That's a real possibility since not all of the residents get along. In the first few moments of the play, a trans resident named Venus (Esteban Andres Cruz) gets into a fight with Taina (Viviana Valeria) over her disturbed mom (Wilemina Olivia-Garcia). Army vet Sarge (a terrifying Liza Colón-Zayas) looks right at Venus and says, "Not only is he a f*ckin' dude with a five dollar perm — but he look like a Minimum Wage Mexican Midget Dishwasher whose Moms got gang-banged by a pack of gap-toothed, Jeri-Curled Chupacabras an sh*t!"

Guirgis's language is as uncomfortable and invigorating as a mouthful of sriracha. Refreshingly, there is nothing politically correct or precious about it. Based on the level of comity between Sarge and Venus in the beginning, you can imagine what happens when Sarge's girlfriend, Bella (Andrea Syglowski), starts to spend more time with Venus.

That's just a sliver of plot in a play that seems to branch out in all directions, each bough bearing fruit. This shaggy script bears the signs of significant revision and excised characters (Miss Rivera seems to have replaced an earlier character named "Grace Jenkins," whose spirit nevertheless lingers in the story). It's not a perfectly polished gem of a play, but the performers find plenty of life in the scuff marks and rough edges.

Elizabeth Canavan plays Rockaway Rosie, Liza Colón-Zayas plays Sarge, Kara Young plays Little Melba Diaz, and Pernell Walker plays Munchies in Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven.
(© Monique Carboni)

There are too many great performances to call out all of them, but here are several: Patrice Johnson Chevannes exudes the faded grandeur of an old movie star as Miss Wanda Wheels, a wheelchair-bound alcoholic. Elizabeth Canavan is hilarious as Rockaway Rosie, an Irish-American resident with a tendency to soliloquize like she's in an O'Neill drama. Sean Carvajal convincingly looks and acts like a teenager as Mateo, the son of a seriously ill resident we never meet. Benja Kay Thomas rings laughter out of every line as Queen Sugar. Pernell Walker gives one of the funniest portrayals of unrequited love I've ever seen. Kristina Poe is disquietingly realistic as Betty Woods, a recently homeless woman. And Kara Young is both vulnerable and spunky as Little Melba Diaz, the young poet whose rhymes are the origin of this play's title.

Director John Ortiz maintains the momentum of these moving parts through energetic staging and sturdy design. Narelle Sissons's set conveys the institutional vibe of the home (happy blue walls marred by water damage) while also providing for multiple locations and angles within and without the building. Mary Louise Geiger's targeted lighting helps to direct our eyes. Alexis Forte's costumes add specificity to already muscular performances. And UnkleDave's Fight House choreographs heart-stopping moments of violence. If they allowed us to bring popcorn into the Atlantic Theater, audiences would be shoveling it.

Liza Colón-Zayas plays Sarge and Elizabeth Rodriguez plays Miss Rivera in ''Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven.
(© Monique Carboni)

And that is somewhat remarkable considering the subject matter. As with his Pulitzer Prize-winning previous play at the Atlantic, Between Riverside and Crazy, Guirgis writes about the New Yorkers most of us would rather ignore. If we're this eager to see them onstage, what is keeping us from knowing them better in real life?

Loading...
Loading...