No one creates moments that are simultaneously unsettling and humorous quite like Stephen Adly Guirgis. Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven is his first play since being awarded the Pulitzer in 2015 for Between Riverside and Crazy. This new work is a snapshot of the struggling residents of a New York City halfway house, surrounded by an unwelcoming neighborhood and staffed by those whose lifestyles aren’t much healthier. It’s a sprawling script with over a dozen main characters to track. Many of the transactional relationships include elements of genuine affection and the ride is a profound one. Ultimately, though, it is not so much a tapestry as a sewing kit with each thread slightly touching the one beside it.
As the play opens, a group session is in progress. This initial conversation hits many predictable beats — drug use, sexual exploitation, and abuse — but also provides a quick introduction to the characters with whom we’ll spend the next three hours. We learn Queen Sugar (Benja Kay Thomas) has gotten caught up in an Amway-style pyramid scheme while Munchies (Pernell Walker) is preoccupied with Nigerian caregiver Mr. Mobo (Neil Tyrone Pritchard). There are glimpses of Wanda Wheels’ (Patrice Johnson Chevannes) elegance, the stranglehold that mentally ill mother Sonia (Wilemina Olivia Garcia) has over her bright daughter Tiana (Viviana Valeria), and the familiar relationship pattern fragile Bella (Andrea Syglowski) is recreating with lesbian in command Sarge (Liza Colón-Zayas). Always quick to say, “no,no,no” is Rockaway Rosie (Elizabeth Canavan). Taking center stage at the top is the clever rapper Little Melba Diaz (Kara Young). In the corner is morbidly obese Betty (Kristina Poe) whose surprise connection and subsequent blossoming is a highlight. And on the edge (and on edge) is the transgendered Venus Ramirez (a glorious Esteban Andres Cruz) a ferocious voice for those who insist on their rightful place. That list doesn’t include the rest of the staff compassionately portrayed by Victor Almazar, David Anzuelo, Sean Carajal, Molly Collier and Elizabeth Rodriguez.
As with other Guirgis plays, a subtle but clear picture of the outside world is also drawn. The city’s system is failing and the shortages of both supplies and care are making these lives unnecessarily challenging. A flock of goats tending the grass in a park uptown receives more devotion and support than any of the humans who are simply looking for a chance.
To hold all these tales, a skeleton of the tenement house dominates the set. The sparsely decorated central room of Narelle Sissons’ design also represents the office of the dedicated and overworked manager and occasionally the bedroom of an occupant. The area between the first row and the stage serves as the surrounding alleyways. Director John Ortiz places much of the action on the house front steps audience left and a bench audience right making the viewing experience a bit like a tennis match. Additional focus is achieved with lighting design by Mary Louise Geiger while the mood rises and falls with sound and compositions by Elisheba Ittoop.
Haunting and moving, Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven is like taking in a gallery filled with the faces of those whom New Yorkers breeze past every day. Though their full stories are not on the display, the images will sear into you. Note that the material is strictly adult, containing nudity and simulated sex and drug use. The limited engagement co-produced by LAByrinth Theater Company has already been extended through Sunday, January 5. Regular tickets begin at $70 and are available online at atlantictheater.org, by calling OvationTix at 866-811-4111, or in person at the Linda Gross Theater box office (336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues).