In ‘Halfway Bitches,’ Playwright Guirgis Goes All the Way

This is two-act, two-hour-and-40-minute political issue to which attention must be paid.

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Liza Colon-Zayas, Andrea Syglowski in "Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven." Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

There’s so much life — and the occasional threatening death — in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ play Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven that it all but explodes from the stage. Hold on: it does explode from the stage. Characters sit in or near the audience. They walk up and down the Atlantic Theater Company’s side aisles. When they’re not charging up and down those aisles.

Guirgis consistently has this effect when he writes. Possibly the most potent example is 2002’s Our Lady of 121st Street, his third play, which I still consider his most thrilling work. You might  imagine that when he starts composing, flames leap from his PC.

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If Our Lady of 121st Street were a TV series, it would be dubbed a “gang comedy.” But it isn’t, although there’s much sizzling comedy in it, along with boiling tragedy. Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven, meanwhile, is the playwright’s “gang tragicomedy.” And when we say “gang,” we mean “gang”: there are 19 actors and 21 characters. This new play, in fact, registers as a companion piece to Our Lady of 121st Street.

The “bitches” to whom Guirgis refers occupy a halfway house (thus the title). This one is precariously located in an upper Manhattan neighborhood with much not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) about it. Members of the house and its overworked staff are introduced at a support-group session that reveals various alliances and animosities. At any given moment, flare-ups between and among those gathered interrupt the guidance of the facilitator, but none are more inflammatory than a confrontation between a wiry war veteran, Sarge (Lisa Colon-Zayas), and the linguine-thin, cross-dressing Venus Ramirez (Esteban Andres Cruz).

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Once the opening confab concludes (with nothing really concluded), Guirgis lets fly two acts of incidents along an eye-popping spectrum — and too many of them to fully describe even in a lengthy review. Although women mostly populate the halfway house — for example, a wheelchair-ridden former actress, Wanda Wheels (Patrice Johnson Chevannes), and her daughter, Taina (Viviana Valeria), who won’t embrace her bright future in order to care for her mother — men do frequent the place. Father Miguel (David Anzuelo) attempts to keep order, which means dealing with Nicky (Greg Keller), a wife-batterer who routinely insists on seeing his wife and must be turned away by any means deemed appropriate.

The halfway house is run by Miss Rivera (Elizabeth Rodriguez), whose hands are so full that she has a convenient drawer containing a convenient guzzle. The weary Miss Rivera is not only fighting in-house disturbances but also an immediate, unwelcome community and City Hall — or, as she calls NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, “Mayor de-Blah-Blah-Blah.”

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As Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven keeps popping like kernels in a covered pot, two incidents emerge that threaten the halfway house. They involves drugs that are rife on the premises. Venus possesses a stash, a spoon and a lighter; she offers a hit to the willing Bella (Andrea Syglowski), who is Sarge’s main squeeze. The sequence comes to no good end; neither does a seemingly less damning plot twist in the form of a goat, Mr. Skittles.

Before Guirgis is through with all of the pull-no-punches endeavors upon Narelle Sisson’s evocative set, he has presented more than a play: Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven is a public service announcement. This is two-act, two-hour-and-40-minute political issue to which attention must be paid.

Much of the dialogue given to Miss Rivera outlines the insufficient quantities of supplies and people she has long requested from the authorities, largely to no avail. After the drug-and-goat debacles prompt local concern, she’s grilled by Detective Sullivan (Keller) as well as Councilwoman Golden (Syglowski), and she gives as good as she gets. What of it? Guirgis saves that for a denouement that won’t be revealed here — but would likely satisfy only an advocate of all things NIMBY.

Under John Ortiz’s iron-fist-in-leather-glove direction, every single actor — meaning all fo them, even those not cited above — brims with the milk of human kindness and the sour milk of human nastiness.

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There is, however, a first among equals: Liza Colon-Zayas. Long a Guirgis player, she has never been anything less than perfect in the roles assigned to her. Previously, though, she hasn’t been asked to perform anyone nearly as hard-bitten as the violence-prone Sarge, who clearly suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (yet another political issue). Colon-Zayas allows no soft streak to emerge in her character; she’s even flinty in her love scene with Bella. Given the play’s — spoiler alert — last line, she becomes another representative of the Guirgis populace that is regularly failed by their government. Colon-Zayas brings all of that off, too.

Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven is a co-production of the Atlantic Theater Company and the LAByrinth Theater Company, Guirgis’ home since he joined the outfit co-founded by Ortiz, Paul Calderon, David Deblinger and Gary Perez in 1992. Signing on as an actor, he started writing plays to the need for manuscripts that would draw on the talents of the Latino and other non-white members of the group. LAByrinth has since become celebrated for its valuable theatrical contributions to a sense of America as a diverse nation. Long may their work live and prosper, and never just halfway.