Exit Lines: “Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven”

Written by Exit Lines, Theatre

Yeah, that’s the title. You got a problem with that?

“Daddy, what show are you going to see tonight?,” the kids asked.

Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven,” I replied.

They laughed. “What’s it about?”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “But it’s from the playwright who wrote The Motherfucker With the Hat.”

More laughter. Thanks for the profane merriment*, Stephen Adly Guirgis–and for penning another remarkable play, the equal to Our Lady of 121st Street, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, and, yes, The Motherfucker With the Hat. It’s been five years since his Pulitzer-winning Between Riverside and Crazy and his gift–an ability to burrow into the darker recesses of humanity, excavating the sorrow, the terror, big laughs, and glimmers of the better angels of our nature–is intact.

I didn’t know much about the show before taking my seat at the Atlantic, preferring to be surprised. In early previews it’s said to have run four hours, on its way to its locked three–but I’m certain that at no time was a minute wasted. Immersion begins at the outset, with Narelle Sissons’ semi-hospitable, mildewed set, a halfway house for women on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Before this place is peopled–and it will be populated by no less than 18 actors, playing 20 characters, and an unexpected animal–we feel it, in its institutional decrepitude and bureaucratic cheer, which is at the very edge of cheerlessness. But it is home, one halfway to nowhere for many of its residents.

Like Guirgis’ prior LAByrinth Theater Company productions Halfway Bitches alternates from large, frequently explosive group encounters to more intimate sequences with a handful of characters. Director and company cofounder John Ortiz knows the terrain inside and out and keeps rein on what could be a hodgepodge of acting styles and emotional see-sawing, but not too tightly; the thrill of a play like this is that the performers seem to be finding their parts anew for each audience. And what performers, and parts! You can access the piece from several directions, but I’ll start with Sarge (the incredible Liza Colon-Zayas), Iraq War veteran and the terror of the facility, whose smoldering anger only softens when her girlfriend, former stripper and single mom Bella (Andrea Syglowski), is around. Sarge’s ire is mostly directed at Venus (Esteban Andres Cruz), a trans woman who barely passes as female, a constant source of tension within the group.

But Sarge has her reasons. Venus is a near-total fuckup, whose friendships with drug dealers threaten to pull Bella back into addiction. Yet Guirgis loves Venus, and Sarge, and the rest of this very motley crew of survivors; he sees through the decay of victimization, hard knocks, and foolish choices and empathizes, a quality in short supply, even in egalitarian NYC. (One plot strand that emerges in this splendidly observed show is how the neighborhood barely puts up with the shelter.) Reminiscent of classic, teeming plays like Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End there’s a vibrant cross-section of life onstage, from the names on down.

There’s Happy Meal Sonia (Wilemina Olivia-Garcia), whose mental illness and codependency keep her grown daughter Taina (Viviana Valeria) in a state of suspended animation. Disabled Wanda Wheels (Patrice Johnson Chevannes) entertains with tales of movie stardom and boyfriend Noam Chomsky while seeking a permanent way out–maybe Queen Sugar (Benja Kay Thomas), who’s pursuing get-rich-quick schemes, will oblige. I’ve hardly scratched the surface (there’s a story, or rather a poem, behind the title, too), but Guirgis also lets us hear from the supervisors, like the African immigrant Mr. Mobo (Neil Tyrone Pritchard), who has discipline over everything except his heart and loins, and the shelter’s director, Miss Rivera (Orange is the New Black castmember Elizabeth Rodriguez), who’s taken to drink over her long hours and exasperating duties. Guirgis has let these marginalized people be seen, and heard.

Loose but urgent, with an ending that reduced me to tears, Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven deserves a half life once its run ends. Experience it and be stirred, and lacerated, and moved.

*After my kids repeated the titles, I told them that they had to contribute to our swear job. “But it’s not our fault,” my daughter protested. “We’re quoting the writer!” There’s a certain logic to that, so, if you’re out there, Mr. Guirgis…you owe me money.