By Cusi Cram; Directed by Daniella Topol
Off Broadway, Site-Specific Theatre
Runs through 10.13.19
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place
by Regina Robbins on 9.20.19
Kathleen Chalfant, Alvin Keith, Justin Genna and Kelly McAndrew in Novenas for a Lost Hospital. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.
BOTTOM LINE: An ambitious work of historical exploration and remembrance, performed in the neighborhood where its core events took place.
Elizabeth Seton, the first American-born Catholic saint. Pierre Toussaint, a former slave who made, and gave away, a fortune. Dr. T, a dedicated doctor who couldn’t heal himself. Those are just a few of the many ghosts we meet in Cusi Cram’s sprawling new work, Novenas for a Lost Hospital. That vanished hospital, St. Vincent’s, was founded by members of the Sisters of Charity in 1849 and closed in 2010. Over 151 years in Greenwich Village, its nurses, doctors, and staff cared for poor people with cholera and typhoid, survivors of the Titanic, and many of the earliest victims of HIV/AIDS. The hospital buildings have since been razed and replaced with (what else?) luxury condos, but an AIDS memorial directly across the street from where it stood strives to keep the memories alive. Now this play does too.
Directed by Daniella Topol, Novenas attempts to synthesize a century and a half of New York history, examining not only the life of St. Vincent’s, but the growth of the Catholic Church in America, the legacies of the African slave trade and the AIDS crisis, and the gentrification of Manhattan—for starters. All of these subjects are clearly interconnected, and the play’s structure—a series of scenes, some naturalistic, some less so, that parallel the novenas, or nine sequential days of prayer—lends itself to this potentially unwieldy undertaking. Adding to the restless quality of the piece is its shifting location: it begins outdoors, moves indoors to the Rattlestick Theater performance space, and concludes back out in the streets of the Village. Along the way, the solid thirteen-person cast sings, dances (sometimes with the audience), chants, and plays a host of characters, some historical, most fictional but no less engaging.
The second section is the core of the experience; it introduces us to Mother Seton (played by New York stage eminence Kathleen Chalfant), who tells us her story of bereavement, conversion, and newfound purpose as a nun and founder of a religious order. Seton didn’t found St. Vincent’s herself, but sisters who trained under her did, and from the start there was controversy: the struggle for funding, friction between (male) doctors and (female) nurses, conflict between medical science and religious beliefs. The action, which blends realistic drama with flights of fancy, bounces back and forth in time, taking us from the 19th century to the early ‘80s (when St. Vincent’s became “Ground Zero” for the AIDS epidemic) to the present day. Longtime New Yorkers, dazed by all the changes the city has gone through in recent decades, may see themselves reflected in a scene where a former dancer (Kelly McAndrew) remembers visiting her dying teacher at St. Vincent’s—and then realizes she has forgotten his name.
Novenas includes enough truly rich dramatic material for several plays, which ultimately poses a problem. Its vast scope and loose structure provide too many opportunities for audience members to lose focus (or get tired of standing). This is a shame, because when the play is allowed to be just that—a play—it packs an emotional punch. Still, despite its imperfections, its ambition is invigorating, and the conversation it generates about the history, character, and future of New York City is a vital one.
(Novenas for a Lost Hospital plays at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place, through October 13, 2019. The running time is 2 hours 30 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Mondays at 7; Wednesdays through Fridays at 7; Saturdays at 1 and 7; and Sundays at 7. Starting 10/4: Fridays at 1 and 7; Saturdays at 7 (all other days remain the same). Tickets are $46, $36 for seniors and are available at rattlestick.org.)
Novenas for a Lost Hospital is by Cusi Cram. Directed by Daniella Topol. Dramaturgy by Guy Lancaster. Choreography by Edisa Weeks. Set Design by Carolyn Mraz. Lighting Design by Stacey Derosier. Sound Design by Brian Hickey and Sinan Zafar. Music by Serge Ossorguine. Stage Manager is P. Tyler Britt.
The cast is Ken Barnett, Goussy Celestin, Kathleen Chalfant, Leland Fowler, Justin Genna, Steven Jeltsch, Alvin Keith, Shayne Lebron-Acevedo, Kelly McAndrew, Noriko Omichi, Rafael Sánchez, Laura Vogels, and Natalie Woolams-Torres.