Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven

Theater, Drama
3 out of 5 stars
Halfway Bitches Go to Heaven
Photograph: Courtesy Monique Carboni

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Theater review by Naveen Kumar 

A sage character in Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven describes the women’s shelter in which it is set as a refuge, not a destination. For the women in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s new play, the uncertain road home is littered with obstacles like addiction, mental illness, criminal records and social stigma. The structure is loose: a collection of friction among big personalities, backslides into self-destructive behavior, and liaisons between residents and staff members. Couched in the wit and rhythms of Guirgis’s free-flowing banter, their interactions are often diverting, despite their scattershot nature.

It’s easy to imagine these women and their individual stories spun out into a TV series, like a sequel to Orange Is the New Black. The first act would make a good pilot episode. Guirgis introduces the ensemble of residents and employees with explicit dialogue that immediately signals a dark comedy with a mature rating. (Among the morning announcements: “Sunday workshop You, Me and Hepatitis C now includes pancake breakfast.”) Details of a memorial service for a former resident triggers a quick-fire exchange: “Keisha ain’t dead!!” “You thinking of Ta’nisha.” “I know the difference between Keisha and Ta’nisha!!!” The implication is that any one of them could be next.

The youngest of the flock (Kara Young) spits her backstory—a Dickensian litany of awful misfortunes—in rhyme; another resident (Wilemina Olivia-Garcia) expresses herself in obscene outbursts, and maintains an iron grip of codependence on her daughter (Viviana Valeria). A tough Army vet (Liza Colón-Zayas) unleashes her temper on the trans woman (Esteban Andres Cruz) she believes has no right to be there. OITNB alum Elizabeth Rodriguez leads the cast as the home’s no-bullshit director, whose own life seems to be hanging by a thread.

But while the play pays careful attention to people whom gentrification would rather ignore, the framing of their lives as entertainment can be discomfiting. What does it mean for the story of a halfway house to feel so often like a sitcom? When do depictions of ignorance, as in the case of a vicious transphobic tirade, curdle and turn sour? The slackness of John Ortiz’s direction allows such questions to linger, and the audience to drift. Feeling uncertain of a destination may be true of life, but it doesn’t always make for great drama. 

Atlantic Theater Company (Off Broadway). By Stephen Adly Guirgis. Directed by John Ortiz. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 40mins. One intermission.

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By: Naveen Kumar

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