Review: ‘Novenas’ Offers Prayers for a Hospital That Died

Review: ‘Novenas’ Offers Prayers for a Hospital That Died

All is sweetness in the church courtyard off West 11th Street where the prologue to “Novenas for a Lost Hospital” takes place. A woman sings a pretty song; another plays the flute; several people with bright smiles and diaphanous garments dance. When a pitcher and bowl are passed around, and the audience of 60 is encouraged to wash hands, it’s a pleasure but a mystery: Are we about to engage in a new-age Christian ritual or a medical procedure?

It turns out to be a bit of both. “Novenas for a Lost Hospital,” a play that takes place at three Greenwich Village sites, is a prayer service but also an autopsy for St. Vincent’s Hospital, which served the area, in one form or another, from 1849 to 2010. From the courtyard you can see what it became subsequently: a high-end condo development called The Greenwich Lane — or as one actor puts it, pointing toward the east, “that tall building with the ugly windows.”

Not that St. Vincent’s was ever much of a looker. As the play, by Cusi Cram, takes pains to point out, it was a hospital that began in poverty, served in poverty and ended in poverty as well.

All that makes “Novenas,” a Rattlestick Theater production that opened on Thursday night, righteous and informative. It has the qualities of both a tract and a tour, and not just because it takes us from that courtyard at St. John’s in the Village Episcopal church to the Rattlestick’s home around the corner and then to the New York City AIDS Memorial nearby. There is something peripatetic about it emotionally as well as structurally; adjust your shoes and your expectations accordingly.

As with any tour, this one highlights some stops more than others. Ms. Cram, who until recently lived in the neighborhood, focuses most on two periods in the hospital’s life: Its founding in the shadow of a cholera epidemic and its modern crisis as the epicenter of AIDS in New York in the 1980s. A pair of nurses works the wards in both eras: one idealistic (Natalia Woolams-Torres), one practical (Kelly McAndrew), both faultlessly compassionate.

Their scenes are loosely tied together, and the play is given its wobbly framework, by two spectral eminences who also serve as narrators: the American saint Elizabeth Seton (Kathleen Chalfant) and the almost-saint Pierre Toussaint (Alvin Keith). Seton’s connections to the story are clear: In 1809, she founded the order whose nuns later established the hospital. Toussaint’s relevance is a bit fuzzier: A Haitian émigré and society hairdresser in pre-Civil War New York, he was a benefactor of the parish. But if he had anything to do with the hospital itself, that isn’t made clear.

Logic is not the point of “Novenas” nor naturalism its mode. Still, in making a convenience of semi-random figures, I think it sweeps too much sloppiness under the rug of surrealism. Too much implausibility as well: It is full of historical information delivered as if it were natural dialogue. “Did you know that America’s first saint was a woman?” says one character. “Technically, you need to say ‘American born’,” begins another.

Worse, real-life issues (such as the conflict between the hospital’s Catholic principles and its medical priorities) and real-life characters (such as the prominent AIDS doctor Ramon A. Torres) are name-checked but left undeveloped. Having a composite character called Lazarus say, “FYI: this place wasn’t exactly welcoming at the beginning,” is an awfully weak way of expressing how AIDS patients were treated in the epidemic’s first years.

It’s certainly not meant to be dismissive; there is just too much history here to dramatize. Even the more developed scenes — fictional, though drawn from general fact — quickly deflate with the dubiousness of forced archetypes. That’s bound to happen when, for instance, two AIDS patients (Justin Genna and Ken Barnett) must stand in for all of them.

What Ms. Cram seems to intend is a theatrical experience built on themes and large social issues rather than on interpersonal conflicts that express them. She is especially interested in the role of women in establishing hospitals and in the role of prejudice (against the Irish, against gays) in testing the limits of care. In that sense, “Novenas” is more like a historical pageant than a play: an attempt, as Seton says, to “re-member” the hospital.

If you come to it in that spirit, “Novenas” has plenty to offer, and whenever the production, directed by Rattlestick’s artistic director Daniella Topol, accepts its unvarnished informational qualities, it feels satisfying. A typical nice touch is that the Rattlestick space, when the audience arrives, is set up as a kind of historical museum, with exhibits of St. Vincent’s long history arrayed on hospital screens. (The set design is by Carolyn Mraz.)

Another edifying element is, as always, Ms. Chalfant. Her innate gravitas is such that even the cutesy motions Ms. Cram sometimes puts Seton through (Toussaint styles her hair; she enjoys trying out a contemporary vulgarity) do not diminish our faith in her authority.

Of course, Ms. Chalfant has been around this sort of material before. When a play has saints talking to AIDS patients via hallucinations, you can’t help but think of Angels in America,” and when a play features brave and literate dying, you can’t help but think of “Wit.”

That’s unfortunate, because no play of this nature can survive the comparisons. “Novenas” often feels like it’s trying to find the quickest way to connect its points, instead of the richest way.

That can be enough, especially in its transitions and excursions. On the evening I saw “Novenas,” when the cast and audience paraded several blocks from the theater for the epilogue at the AIDS Memorial — across the street from the former St. Vincent’s emergency room — some curious bystanders joined the merry music-making. To the extent the play had been looking to “re-member” a community of care in the Village, it at last succeeded.

Novenas for a Lost Hospital

Tickets Through Oct. 13 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, Manhattan; 866-811-4111, Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.

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