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Theatre in Review: Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven (Atlantic Theater Company)

Esteban Andres Cruz, Andre Syglowski. Photo: Monique Carboni.

When it comes to smack talk, Stephen Adly Guirgis is our poet laureate. In play after play, he rounds up gangs of streetwise smart-mouths who let fly with enough invective to take down whole populations; so scalding is the cantankerous cast of Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven that one imagines the entire universe of David Mamet's characters picking up their marbles and running home in terror. Indeed, it's not easy to find examples from the script that won't get us kicked off the Internet, but I will do my best.

Halfway Bitches is set in a Manhattan halfway house for abused, ailing, and/or homeless women, but their fallen states have done nothing to still their tongues. The alpha female among them -- especially in Liza Colón-Zayas' authoritative performance -- is Sarge, a hard-drinking (if ostensibly in recovery) Iraq War veteran. Confronting a trans female whose presence she finds offensive, she snarls, "Look at him! Not only is he a fuckin' dude with a five-dollar perm -- but he look like a minimum wage Mexican midget dishwasher whose Moms got gang-banged by a pack of gap-toothed, Jeri-Curled Chupacabras an shit!" She then offers to cut off his male organ, "Benihana style."

The object of Sarge's anger is Venus Ramirez, who knows a thing or two about self-assertion: "I'm a woman -- but more than that, my core identity, from birth, from conditioning, from serial abuse and abandonment, and being defiled and debased and penetrated -- set on fire by family members, beaten with a hammer, force-fed rat poison -- and hey, I'm sure you got your horror stories too, mama -- but the result of all that, Sarge -- if you push me too far, I fight back, I fight dirty, and I don't stop, bitch -- okay?"

Then there's Taina, who is trying to break away from her ailing, possessive mother. Responding to the older woman's claim of years of devotion, she says, "I don't know, Ma -- what years you talking about? When you were incarcerated? Those years? When you would chain me to the radiator when I was eight so you could go out -- sucking dick, stealing wallets, blacking out -- forgetting to come home?" And let's not forget Wanda Wheels, a grand-mannered, wasted alcoholic, confined to a wheelchair, waving her cigarette holder and announcing, "Anybody ask you about me, tell 'em check the make and model: I'm a bitch on wheels." This semi-menagerie is overseen by the administrator, Miss Rivera, who, offering tough love to a clueless young staff member, snaps, "Dress down. Use less products. Don't no one want help from some bougie Peppermint Patty. Get out of my office." Leave it to Bella, a sometime addict and Sarge's on-and-off girlfriend, to sum up the distinctive atmosphere of oppression and aggression: "You know the deal: Half the time ya wanna throw yourself off a bridge, the other half you're like legitimately pissed no one's named a bridge after you."

Representing the male contingent is Father Miguel, whose apparent holiness is contradicted by the fact that he once threw a malefactor off a roof and who makes short work of an abusive husband sniffing around for his estranged spouse; Mobo, a Nigerian social worker who guiltily takes part in steamy encounters with one of the residents; and Joey Fresco, the place's janitor, who has lost track of his many girlfriends, a roster that, to his stunned disbelief, includes Venus. In confession, he says, "You know I got a wife, and you know, like, some girls on the side -- and I'm working on that, you know, I'm trying to reduce it down to just my wife, but these girls, Father, I mean, they don't go away easy."

These only scratch the surface of a play that teems with fast-talking, sharp-elbowed, wildly troubled characters, all of them busy angling for a better life or justifying their misery. Guirgis' plays are sometimes short on plot; this one bristles with conflicts that are inevitable when so many basket cases occupy the same cramped space. If all this frantic action has a center, it is probably the Sarge -- Bella romance, a violently emotional affair made especially volatile thanks to Sarge's fury over Bella bonding (in a platonic way) with Venus. Other threads include Wanda's attempts at getting suicide assistance (using her insurance policy as a lure); the fate of Betty, so overweight that she can't bear to wash her naked self; a pyramid scheme known as "Famway"; and the kidnapping of a goat, a misadventure with repercussions that affect the future of the home.

A big play that might be mistaken for a major one, Halfway Bitches has room for eighteen speaking roles (plus that goat), and it certainly gives voice -- loudly, ferociously, and often hilariously -- to mostly female characters who, for various reasons -- including race, poverty, and abuse -- have been consigned to society's bottom rung. Guirgis doesn't really construct drama; instead, he lets all hell break loose, allowing everyone to bare their dreams, disappointments, and furies in gorgeously ornamented language that turns gutter slang into slam-bang blank verse. Given this crowded, clattering canvas, the playwright seems blind to certain infelicities, however; these include hairpin turns from tragedy to comedy, which can seem coarse and sitcom-ish, and characters who, seen at the breaking point, return a little while later, wisecracking with verve. (The author's gift for verbal counterpunching doesn't make him a reliable depictor of those too beaten down to speak for themselves.) Also, thanks to the sheer profusion of stories, the best material risks being crowded out; there isn't a single subplot that wouldn't benefit from greater fleshing-out.

Still, under the cracked whip of director John Ortiz, everyone gives life to these funny, forked-tongued creatures. Among the standouts are Elizabeth Canavan as Rockaway Rosie, so proper that if she "ran the world -- there'd only be like eight people;"Sean Carvajal as a teenage boy parked on the front stoop while his mother quietly fades away upstairs; Patrice Johnson Chevannes as Wanda, lost in memories of flirting with Noam Chomsky and Amiri Baraka and holding court at Café Carlyle; Greg Keller as that spouse-abuser ("I'm not a fuckin' perpetrator! I'm a Roman Catholic and a union man!"); Elizabeth Rodriguez as Miss Rivera, killing herself on the job and watching her neglected daughter slip away; Andrea Syglowski as both the tormented Bella and a city councilwoman with an agenda; and Kara Young as a preciously talented young resident, one of whose poems gives the play its title. Also making strong impressions are Victor Almanzar as Joey, the most hapless of serial philanderers, and Esteban Andres Cruz, tottering around on heels and holding his ground as Venus.

The production design provides a vividly shopworn environment: Narelle Sissons' set design, which frames the home's common room with a staircase, front stoop, and upstairs bedrooms, is marked by grimy walls; dusty, dilapidated Venetian blinds; and holes in the ceiling. LED tape, arrayed around the windows, marks a sad attempt at adding a bit of color. Mary Louise Geiger's lighting gets a remarkable number of finely shaded time-of-day looks while simultaneously isolating cast members in countless positions. Alexis Forte's ragbag costumes nonetheless lend a distinct profile to each character. Elisheba Ittoop's incidental music blends rock drums with melancholy cello lines; her sound design nicely evokes the life of the street.

Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven is loaded with excesses, but they are also born of the play's enormous lust for life. It's a portrait of city street life as attention-grabbing as a Reginald Marsh painting and as dismaying as a report on the six o'clock news. Listen, and you'll learn something. --David Barbour

(19 December 2019)

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