New York City Theater
"Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven"
Atlantic Theater Company
Enough stories pour out of the powerful, humane “Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven” to keep a TV series filled for a year. Stephen Adly Guirgis’ naturalistic play is akin to such works as John Arden’s “Live Like Pigs” and Maxim Gorky’s “The Lower Depths.” It creates a world unto itself, a New York women’s shelter teeming with love and lust, drugs and booze, the battered and the neglected, parolees and a priest – and an unfortunate goat.
If you’re looking for a well-made play, this ain’t it. Rather, it’s a bunch of short scenes that spotlight characters in extremis, presided over by a harried supervisor. There are group meetings and individual stories, all coalescing in a portrait of people most of us would never meet, would pass by or cross the street to avoid.
Both trying to fit in with the group, yet bent on maintaining their independence, when we first encounter them the mismatched women (and one transgender) are sitting on mismatched chairs. Told they can attend meetings for incest survivors or those with Hepatitis, these are souls in need of connections, lost souls who know “a refuge is not a destination; the only real destination is home.”
Even the shelter, though it tries to be a home, insecurely exists on borrowed time. When the ladies sit outside they’re warned not to smoke or drink because more affluent neighbors might complain, which could lead to closing down the place. They refuse, however, to be beggars or, worse, victims.
On top of the heap is Sarge (an unforgettable Liza Colón-Zayas), sarcastic, tough, in love with the sexy Bella (Andrea Syglowski) and a tormentor of Venus Ramirez (Esteban Andres Cruz) a transgender whom Sarge insists doesn’t belong in a woman’s shelter. She also badgers Betty Woods (Kristina Poe), an obese woman too ashamed of her body to shower. The unintended result of Sarge’s battering draws Venus and Betty together, resulting in a moving scene of camaraderie.
Among the other denizens are the mentally ill Happy Meal Sonia (Wilemina Olivia-Garcia); her trapped daughter, Taina (Viviana Valeria); wheelchair bound, grandiose Wanda Wheels (Patrice Johnson Chevannes) who is purposely starving herself to death.
In charge of the shelter, Miss Rivera (a subtle Elizabeth Rodriguez), demurely drinks to assuage her frustrations (the city doesn’t care enough about her work). Among the staff are Joey Fresco (Victor Almanzar), sexually, confusingly attracted to the trans but still intact Victor; Mr. Mobo (Neil Tyrone Pritchard), having an affair with Munchies (Pernell Walker), an aggressive resident; and the sympathetic but no-nonsense Father Miguel (David Anzuelo).
Quite a bunch and only a sample, with others are as colorful and needy in this excellent cast. Guirgis empathizes with everyone, believing, it appears, that only through community can salvation come. With pinpoint direction by John Ortiz, and the enfolding, sprawling sets by Narlle Sissons, Guirgis’ large canvas depicts a never-ending search for connection and love in all their varieties. “Life ain’t fair. But don’t give up.”
--David A. Rosenberg
Dec. 20, 2019