Review of Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven at Atlantic Theater Company

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    December 10, 2019
    Review by:

    How do you produce a play that is two hours and forty-five minutes long – not a musical, just a play – and have total confidence that you will not lose your audience by intermission? Make sure your writer is Stephen Adly Guirgis and your director is John Ortiz

    I was so in it with this ensemble cast of characters in Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven, that I would have gladly spent three more hours with them. Raw human struggle served without a prescription for hope or cheerful poetic explanations to make white people feel better is happening at the Linda Gross Theater on West 20th Street, and you gotta go see it.

    Guirgis has us feel like mice in the corner in a halfway house full of women in New York City witnessing all the pain, all the injustice and some switchblade sharp comic relief. Father Miguel (Dave Anzuelo) says, 'No saint without a past, no sinner without a future'. All these characters are suspended like Tantalus between a way out they cannot trust and acting on hope that just digs them further into darkness. We love Bella (Andrea Syglowski) who has escaped an abusive alcoholic husband with her infant son and we have great hope for her, but her path to recovery is complicated by her own addiction. When she shoots up with a friend and we are terrified about what is going to happen to her baby, we also don’t want anything terrible to happen to her.

    Guirgis has a way of not judging his characters so that we won’t either. What we are witnessing is not preaching about how we have to fix the fucked up reality for those born behind the starting line; rather, it’s 'Hey! Have you ever really looked at this problem? Get out of your Imaginarium, Mayor, Congressperson, President and live this problem; feel this grit in your marrow'. There are people who want to contribute, participate in the economy, be loved... just like you.

    I want to gush over every single one of these characters and the amazing skill with which these actors brought them to life, but I've got a word limit to keep to. So, just a couple more highlights: Sarge (Liza Colón-Zayas) is a veteran who does not fit a government-regulated protocol for mental health despite being tough as nails and surviving military combat. She is always on the defensive and Collier brings a sexuality to her that is like a tigress; beautiful but so very dangerous. Wanda Wheels (Patrice Johnson Chevannes) has kindness and beauty for everyone but herself; she floats with the grace of an angel above the wheelchair that confines her character and packs a hell of a punch toward the end of the show when she finally asks for what she wants. Venus Ramirez (Esteban Andres Cruz) is an out-loud transsexual who is a saint to Betty Woods (Kristina Poe) when it comes to confronting the imperfect bodies God put them in. But Cruz layers Venus with pride and shame so intensely that you want to hug her and slap her at the same time when she falls down yet again. I want to see Poe do more more more on Broadway because this debut performance was so deliciously honest. 

    There is no neat ending because solutions can’t be final and peace is overrated, human connection is everything. Ortiz weaves these threads through this play like a master.

    (Photo by Monique Carboni)

    "I’ll admit that I spent the show’s first 10 minutes or so in a state of slightly irritable resistance, seeing so many curmudgeonly eccentrics assembled for an in-house talent night. But it wasn’t long before I succumbed to the surging vitality and diversity of its wayward throng of lost souls. When the script doesn’t provide the individualizing details that transcend stereotypes, the performances do. And Guirgis makes sure that every person onstage is filled with the contradictions that are part and parcel of being human."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "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."
    Robert Hofler for The Wrap

    "Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven, whose title stems from a poem recited by one of the teenage residents, doesn't fully live up to its considerable ambitions. But those ambitions are not to be taken lightly, nor for granted, in this work bursting with emotional life."
    Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter