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Theatre in Review: Novenas for a Lost Hospital (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater)

Kathleen Chalfant, Alvin Keith. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

In many ways, I am the ideal audience member for Cusi Cram's fantasia about the life and death of St. Vincent's Hospital, a once-vital Greenwich Village institution that was unaccountably allowed to vanish. As a longtime resident of the neighborhood, I know full well the hospital's central role there, not least as Ground Zero during the early years of the AIDS epidemic. I witnessed its sad decline, thanks to an escalating series of misfortunes and bad decisions, ending in closure and replacement by Greenwich Lane, an apartment/townhouse complex where units reportedly have sold for upwards of fifteen million dollars. Never mind that it is, at best, an ugly, fortress-like enclave for the very rich; its very existence an affront, a daily reminder that twenty-first-century New York is, all too often, a redoubt of privilege. As someone in the play notes, now that St. Vincent's is gone, there is no hospital on Manhattan's West Side between Park Row and Fifty-Seventh Street; the silence that follows this statement is the most eloquent thing in the play.

It's a shameful story -- one practically guaranteed to produce tears, fury, or both -- and, to me, the unwelcome surprise of Novenas for a Lost Hospital is its essentially anodyne nature. The story of the hospital's one hundred-sixty-year run is a rich slice of New York history -- perhaps too much so for the playwright, who has trouble organizing her material. It touches on the Catholic Church, feminism, racism, the Village as an artistic and gay bohemia, municipal politics, money, celebrities, and the city's changing demographics. Cram namechecks all of these and more, but making lists isn't the same thing as writing a play.

All sorts of people come and go throughout Novenas for a Lost Hospital. They include Elizabeth Ann Seton, the impoverished widow who founded a religious order and opened St. Vincent's (becoming, after her death, the first American-born Catholic saint) and Pierre Toussaint, the Haitian-born slave who achieved success as a high-society hairdresser and, ultimately, helped fund the original St. Patrick's Cathedral. (As the script notes, he is considered "venerable," a term that means he is well on the way to canonization.) Others include Lazarus, a gay man who survived the epidemic, and JB, his lover, a choreographer, who did not. These and half a dozen others - mostly physicians and nurses -- interact across space and time, pondering St. Vincent's and its relationship to an ever-changing Greenwich Village. Many stimulating issues are raised, including Mother Seton's astonishing achievements, against all odds; Toussaint's uneasy relationship with a sometimes-racist Church; the hospital's role in caring for the city's swelling population of Irish immigrants and its initially spiky dealings with the gay community; and a perfect storm of problems -- among them, mounting debts, an ill-advised merger, inept and/or corrupt management consultants, and gentrification -- that proved to be its undoing. (Susan Sarandon is scolded for kicking the place when it was down, commenting that she would never take her kids there for treatment.)

This is fertile material for drama, but in trying to name all the factors that brought down St. Vincent's, Novenas for a Lost Hospital loses focus. Cram can barely make a point before she is onto the next, leaving one with a bewildering collection of unexplored ideas. (Toussaint's presence, while enjoyable, is rather that of an uninvited guest.) More than once, the action stops cold for cast members to spoon-feed dollops of historical information to the audience, leaving one feeling one should be taking notes. Both Cram and Guy Lancaster, her dramaturg, have written for children's television and, at times, the play feels like an informational presentation for young audiences, designed to stimulate further reading.

In addition, Cram has invested the action with ritualistic -- and supposedly healing - aspects that prove distracting: Before the play proper begins, audience members line up outside St. John's in the Village, the church next door to Rattlestick, and are ushered through a claustrophobic passageway into a lovely interior garden, where they are serenaded by the cast, encouraged to take part in a hand-washing ceremony, and made to look at a strange tableau depicting a hospital patient cleaning himself behind a diaphanous curtain. The evening concludes with a walkabout leading to the AIDS Memorial, on Greenwich Avenue, where everyone stands in a circle, holding the little electric candles handed out earlier by the cast. This is meant to be uplifting, yet it feels strangely irrelevant.

How a story of blood and money; privilege and prejudice; and young men abandoned and ravaged by a plague was transformed into a museum exhibit crossed with a New Age prayer festival is something to ponder, and not necessarily with pleasure. Certainly, Daniella Topol, the director, efficiently herds her company (and the audience) across three locations, and, even with its two-and-a-half-hour running time, the production's energy never flags. The play is lucky to have Kathleen Chalfant presiding over the action as a busy, efficient Mother Seton, even if the character is conceived, rather too cutely, as a woman of two centuries. (We're supposed to find it adorable when she uses the word "fucking." She's a saint, you know.) Alvin Keith is an authoritative presence as, among others, Toussaint, especially in his account of being denied entrance to the very cathedral he helped to fund. Ken Barnett and Justin Genna make an attractive pair as Lazarus and JB -- although the latter has too many leaping, flying entrances -- but both characters are almost total blanks, a couple of handsome placeholders uneasily standing in for a wiped-out generation. Natalie Woolams-Torres and Kelly McAndrew are fine as a number of nuns and nurses; McAndrew makes the most of the play's which finest passage, in a lifelong Village resident, a social worker, faces the fact that she is being priced out of her community.

Carolyn Mraz's set design -- which strips the Rattlestick auditorium of its usual seating -- includes a photo display loaded with fascinating views of the old Village. (My personal favorite is the shot of a Loew's cinema that once occupied the corner of Seventh Avenue South and Greenwich Avenue.) Hanging from the ceiling, on individual strings, is a flock of blue butterflies; interspersed among them are pieces of paper on which audience members have written personal memories of St. Vincent's. Stacey Derosier's lighting artfully delineates each of the play's levels of reality. Ari Fulton's costumes range from contemporary wear to nuns' habits and a stunning frilly period satin jacket-and-breeches ensemble for Toussaint. Sound designers Brian Hickey and Sinan Zafar provide effective reinforcement for Serge Ossorguine's incidental music, along with a moving sound collage of nurses talking about their careers at the hospital.

Occasionally, the play starts to assemble a dramatic profile, for example, when a doctor, trying to raise money for an AIDS drug trial, spars with a nun in management about using the word "prophylactic" -- officially verboten by the Church -- in a fundraising proposal. But this is yet another episode that is allowed to drift off without resolution. Without question, Novenas for a Lost Hospital has its heart in the right place, but its head is in the clouds, its thoughts hopelessly scattered. It has so much on its mind that it ends up tongue-tied. A great urban tragedy is identified, but never illuminated. --David Barbour

(25 September 2019)

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