” Halfway Bitches Go Straight To Heaven” Review – A Damn Good Play

(l-r) Elizabeth Canavan (Rockaway Rosie), Liza Colón-Zayas (Sarge), Kara Young (Lil Melba Diaz) and Pernell Walker (Munchies). • Photo Credit: Monique Carboni

“Halfway Bitches Go Straight To Heaven” by Stephen Adly Guirgis, directed by John Ortiz, a co-production of Atlantic Theater Company with LAByrinth Theater Company, is currently playing at the Atlantic Theater Company-Linda Gross Theater 336 W. 20th St. Manhattan, NY through December 29th, 2019.

Stephen Adly Guirgis, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Playwrighting, “Between Riverside and Crazy”, which also premiered at The Atlantic Theater Company, has unleashed a torrent of a play which runs nearly three hours and fills up every minute of that well spent time at this reliable theater home on 20th St., which features a narrative home on its stage for the homeless via an ensemble of eighteen players, all delivering performances worthy of the audience’s riveted attention.

(l-r) Kara Young (Lil Melba Diaz), Esteban Andres Cruz (Venus Ramirez), Benja Kay Thomas (Queen Sugar) and Pernell Walker (Munchies). • Photo Credit: Monique Carboni

The Halfway House for women is well depicted in Narelle Sissons’ multi-level set and John Ortiz’s lucid, fast paced staging of this teeming array, which arrests the viewers and listeners immediately, as we’re thrown into a group therapy session for the women attendees. This features one transexual who calls herself Venus, (a poignant Esteban Andres Cruz) whose presence does not go uncontested by a particular female war veteran named Sarge, (a formidably incisive and dangerous Liza Colon-Zayas), and challenges “the chick with a dick” as to the right of  him/her being there. The volcanic eruption of words which deluges the room from Sarge upon the would-be goddess is the first of many a speech that requires considerable wind and voice from the speaker doing justice to Mr. Guirgis’ pen delivered at breakneck speed, and one does not wish to miss a word.

Indeed Mr. Guirgis is by now well renown to be second to none for candor, nor is he limited in eloquence in articulating with utmost specificity, his character’s language, and thereby, like Shakespeare, his characters. This play also resembles much in terms of its desire to illustrate a segment of society in order to educate the receptive audience as did Shaw in” Major Barbara”, O’ Neill in “The Iceman Cometh” and more recently, Lanford Wilson’s “The Hot L Baltimore”, as well as virtually all of August Wilson’s works, yet “Jitney” comes closest to my mind. Like them, this new play presents a community our theatergoing society may well know of, but not ordinarily know, nor indeed wish to.  Guirgis, of course, leaves us no choice, and my theatergoing companion and I, as indeed, the entire audience judging from a spontaneous standing ovation at its conclusion, was grateful.

l-r) Elizabeth Canavan (Rockaway Rosie), Patrice Johnson Chevannes (Wanda Wheels), Kara Young (Lil Melba Diaz) and Benja Kay Thomas (Queen Sugar). • Photo Credit: Monique Carboni

The travails of each individual’s story keeps the story varied, in mood, from the absurdly comic to the most pitiable of tragic. The play is peppered with strategic laughs, and like life, turns on a dime venturing into a more venomous of venues. Not that there’s a villain to be seen, only an indifferent society. The residents would not be housed there in the first place were they not in the most desperate of straights, and no one is faced with a straight more desperate than the supervisor of the home, one Miss Rivera, played with an unimpeachable authority of laser like focus by Elizabeth Rodriguez. I could single out every member of this production. All have more than mere moments to shine and deeply touch. However, there was one cast member that particularly got my goat. I promise that it will become obvious to all who attend as to which it should be.

This production features the following (in alphabetical order) Victor Almanzar, David Anzuelo, Elizabeth Canavan, Sean Carvajal, Patrice Johnson Chevannes, Molly Collier, Liza Colon-Zayas, Esteban Andres Cruz, Greg Keller, Wilemina Olivia- Garcia, Kristina Poe, Neil Tyron Pritchard, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Anrdea Syglowski, Benja Kay Thomas, Viviana Valeria, Pernell Walker, Kara Young Sets: Narelle Sissons.

Costumes: Alexis Forte; Lights: Mary Louise Geiger; Sound and Original Compositions: Elisheba Ittoop; Fight director: Unkle Dave’s Fight House; Casting: Telsey&Co. William Cantler, CSA, Karyn Casl, CSA;  Animals: William Berloni; PSM: Chris De Camillis.

– (l-r) 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 (Lil Melba Diaz), Viviana Valeria (Taina) and Esteban Andres Cruz (Venus Ramirez). • Photo Credit: Monique Carboni

If the play’s narrative, among the eighteen brilliant players in this production were to be sifted and carried to a crux of two, perhaps it would be that of Miss Rivera and Sarge, who are the last seen in the last scene of the play. The challenges for Miss Rivera trying to manage this home and calling out to one of her fledgling staff of social workers, Jennifer, (an endearingly earnest Molly Collier), with the cry of ,” then help one”, which is a profound admonition of The Talmud: (” He who saves a single life, saves the world entire”). This cry comes to a nearly futile conclusion; nearly, however, in that some souls apparently get the chance to be saved. And yet the last utterance of Sarge, left alone on stage, felt to me, like a gut punch. Mr. Guirgis, can indeed, jab with his left, but when he wants, throws a helluva right.

This is a play deserving of anyone who believes that theater can awaken a conscience and wishes to augment their perspective of their fellow, too oft, neglected citizens. And  for whomever loves a damn good play! It runs there until Dec. 29th. Should you wish to experience a great piece of ensemble work, GO Straight to West 20th!

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