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Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven

Theatre Review by David Hurst - December 10, 2019

The Cast
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Like the fractured lives it illuminates, Stephen Adly Guirgis's new play about the struggles of a group of women in a homeless shelter, Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven, is frequently messy and consistently overwhelming. But their stories are so compellingly portrayed by an extraordinary cast of actors that your resistance to any minor flaws will melt away as you succumb to the struggle for humanity in front of you. Staged at the Atlantic Theater Company as a co-production with the LAByrinth Theater Company, Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven is as hilarious as it is heartbreaking. It is also a master-class in acting and not to be missed.

For more than twenty years, Guirgis has been giving audiences gritty plays with a distinctive, urban voice, introducing us to characters most of us have never met: In Arabia We'd All Be Kings (1999); Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train (2000); Our Lady of 121st Street (2003); The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (2005); The Little Flower of East Orange (2008); The Motherfucker With the Hat (2011), which heralded his Broadway debut; and From Riverside to Crazy (2014), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2015. Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven joins those plays, but at almost three hours and boasting a cast of 18 actors, Guirgis is working on a much larger canvas than he did with his previous works.

Esteban Andres Cruz and Andrea Syglowski
Photo by Monique Carboni
Left to wrangle these performers and stage time is John Ortiz, an actor and frequent Guirgis collaborator who is making his Off-Broadway directorial debut with Guirgis's latest opus. Ortiz is aided in this endeavor by a sprawling set that provides a myriad of locales, courtesy of designer Narelle Sissons. Oddly enough, though Ortiz's handling of the big group scenes may feel a little static, it's the many small, intimate scenes between only two or three characters where the play takes wing and soars. To be sure, Halfway Bitches isn't plot-heavy. Indeed, the "conflict" (revealed late in the second act) is that the Upper West Side neighborhood where the rundown halfway house is located has been looking for any excuse to evict the women. But Ortiz has clearly spent time working with all the actors to pull rich, three-dimensional characterizations out of them. They've all seen the worst society has to offer but, somehow, they struggle onward with equal parts hope and resignation.

To say the least, the women who have made a home in the shelter are an eccentric and combative bunch. Every one is a standout and to list the cast and their roles would be a disservice to the company's artistry. There is a beautiful scene, however, that will serve to illuminate the brilliance of Guirgis's heartfelt writing, which expresses itself so eloquently in Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven. Betty Woods (Kristina Poe) is an obese woman who lives in the house. The other residents are cruel to her because she doesn't bathe and, as a result, she smells. Venus (a brilliant Esteban Andres Cruz), a trans woman who prostitutes herself to feed her drug addiction and has her own battles in the house, takes pity on her and gives her a bath. While doing so, she also gives her some much-needed human kindness. It is the kind of raw, heartrending, real human interaction that gives theatre the power to change lives.

Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven
Through December 29, 2019
Atlantic Theater Company at The Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
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