Not many new plays simultaneously evoke classic, big-canvas social dramas by Odets or Rice and binge-tastic TV like Orange Is the New Black. But there aren’t many playwrights like Stephen Adly Guirgis. For 20-plus years, this prodigious force in American theater has married heightened urban realism with a tortured yet honest search for redemption – in densely peopled, maximalist dramas. Guirgis’ Latinx, African American or white characters – cops, cons, social workers, sinners and saints – are stressed, damaged folks in institutions. They’re tweaked to the gills or hanging on to sobriety by one chewed fingernail. When they don’t have a knife or gun handy, they weaponize their voices. They mock, they wheedle, or rain abuse down on each other in torrents of profanity-laced Spanglish or street braggadocio. Guirgis’ New York is the one that won’t go away, no matter how much gentrification erases the past. I’m so glad to report that Guirgis’ latest piece, a typically digressive and rage-fueled affair called Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven, is his best Labyrinth Theater Company show in a long time.
Co-produced by the intrepid Atlantic Theater Company, Halfway Bitches feels like Labyrinth’s roaring return. Labyrinth was a company that made early 2000s theater so exciting, founded by Guirgis, Philip Seymour Hoffman and actor John Ortiz (the latter making a solid directorial debut). In gritty cult hits such as Jesus Hopped the “A” Train, Our Lady of 121st Street, and the wildly ambitious Bible riff, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, the company turned out ensemble drama that was raw, hilarious and real. For a while, it felt like Labyrinth would become an East Coast Steppenwolf, a diverse collective of actors, writers and directors with an aptitude for muscular, scenery-chewing performance. But the company had to vacate its home at the Public Theater, Hoffman died (a tragic loss still hard to accept), and Giurgis got his Broadway debut (Labyrinth was a producer) with The Motherfucker with the Hat. Now he’s back at the Atlantic where his last play, Between Riverside and Crazy, won the Pulitzer Prize.
You could call Halfway Bitches a sort of flophouse melodrama, a distant – and mostly female – descendent of The Iceman Cometh or Gorky’s The Lower Depths. The setting is a contemporary shelter for abused women on the Upper West Side. It features a big cast – 18 actors, very little double casting, plus a brief cameo by a goat (wearing an adorably practical diaper). I don’t have space to name all the residents and workers at Hope House, but here we go. There’s Sarge (Liza Colón-Zayas), a war vet with PTSD and anger issues who’s having an affair with Bella (Andrea Syglowski), a stripper and new mother trying to kick heroin. Gentler but just as messed up is Rockaway Rosie (Elizabeth Canavan), who tries to mother the minors in the house, including the sweet but hard-bitten Little Melba Diaz (Kara Young) and frustrated but kindly teen Mateo (Sean Carvajal). If there’s hope here, it’s that the kids escape the fates of their elders. That’s the crisis facing Taina (Viviana Valeria), a 25-year-old woman still under the thumb of her mentally unstable and emotionally abusive mother (Wilemina Olivia-Garcia). Wanda Wheels (Patrice Johnson Chevannes) may have a whimsical name and a penchant for colorful tales from her theatrical past, but the wheelchair-bound raconteur is drinking herself to death. Life for the high-spirited, trash-talking Queen Sugar (Benja Kay Thomas) and Munchies (Pernell Walker) is not quite so dire, but both are no less self-destructive.
Ostensibly in charge of the establishment is Miss Rivera (Elizabeth Rodriguez), a tough and honest crusader who has to balance city interference, the complaints of local residents who resent a women’s shelter on their block, and the tendency of the residents to quarrel and fight. Sarge warns an obese fellow resident to take a shower because she stinks, and when the depressed, pathetic woman (Kristina Poe) fails to do so, the results are grim. Everyone is either on the wagon, falling off or throwing someone under it. Miss Rivera depends on increasingly frequent nips from a bottle of vodka in her desk, and David Anzuelo’s cheerful priest hides a violent past. As a dimwitted ex-con and janitor, Victor Almanzar pays for furtive sex with Venus (Esteban Andres Cruz), a transwoman openly despised by the other women.
For all the misery these characters have absorbed – domestic abuse, horrific transphobia, war trauma, addiction – Halfway Bitches is often rudely hilarious. In terms of insults based on ethnic background, gender identity or sexual orientation, Giurgis makes sure everyone is equal-opportunity offensive. You’ve heard of punching up versus punching down? For example, a cis-male white comedian shouldn’t be applauded for jokes about poor trans people of color? Giurgis lets the intersectional animosity fly. Sarge bellows transphobic insults at Venus, and while we condemn the bigotry, Venus is no saint. There are no purely virtuous people in this world, and their entrenched problems aren’t going to be solved by a few weeks in the home. Besides the narrative arcs for most of the characters, the main plot point (this is not a plot-driven play) concerns the disappearance of Bella after she relapses, and the fate of Hope House, which, absurdly, hangs on the life of a goat that is taken inside. A farm animal’s life has more political pull than the dozen women and children in Hope House.
I was texting with a colleague who didn’t like Halfway Bitches. We didn’t get into the reasons, but I can understand their reservations. It’s messy, it’s crude, it puts characters through hell and then abandons them. You won’t find an argument here about how it’s a well-made social drama or a penetrating character study. At times it plays like theatricalized notes for three episodes of a gritty HBO series. In an interview with Ortiz, I read that early previews ran nearly four hours and scenes were added or rewritten. But for all that tumult and shuffling, I had a blast. No, the actors aren’t all on the same level, but Ortiz brings them together to create a smooth-flowing, lived-in naturalism. Colón-Zayas is terrifying as the dead-eyed Sarge, and Cruz’s embattled Venus, a complex mix of empathy, viciousness and pride, nearly walks away with whole scenes – and in high heels. It shouldn’t surprise me that Giurgis and his pals at Labyrinth could turn out a play full of passionate, kickass acting and bitter social commentary. And I never expect Giurgis to make a neat, clever (constipated) drama. But what came as a shock was the bursting vitality – there’s so much life packed on that stage. And it’s never tidy, or black and white.
David Cote is a theater critic, playwright and opera librettist based in New York City.