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Novenas for a Lost Hospital Exhumes the Legacy of Manhattan's Last Catholic Hospital

Rattlestick Playwrights Theater presents an ambitious eulogy to its departed neighbor.

Natalie Woolams-Torres, Leland Fowler, Ken Barnett, Kelly McAndrew, and Kathleen Chalfant star in Cusi Cram's Novenas for a Lost Hospital, directed by Daniella Topol, for Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.
(© Julieta Cervantes)

First impressions can kill, and Novenas for a Lost Hospital makes one that nearly leaves the show dead on arrival. An ode to St. Vincent's Hospital, which served Greenwich Village from 1849 to 2010, the show begins at St. John's in the Village, an Episcopal church around the corner from the former hospital that has long ministered to the gay community (and which hosts the LGBT Catholic group, Dignity). We file into St. John's small courtyard to the sound of cello and flute music as the actors sway and repetitively sing "hey, hey."

"There'll be sickness, and there'll be dancing," promises an actor in the cloying tone of someone auditioning to be a children's television host. She then invites us to ritualistically cleanse our hands from vessels of water that robed actors carry through the audience. An actor wearing a crown of flowers and a perma-smile beckons us further into the courtyard. Oh yes, the woo-woo is strong with this one.

Beyond the sinking suspicion that Marianne Williamson might jump out from behind the shrubbery at any moment, this prologue is totally devoid of dramatic tension. We move clumsily through the space because we are told to, not because the play has enticed us down the rabbit hole. Between its undergraduate poetry, predictable choreography, and forced audience participation, the prologue serves as a compendium of the worst immersive-theater clichés — a bad omen for the remaining two hours.

Ken Barnett and Justin Genna appear in Novenas for a Lost Hospital.
(© Julieta Cervantes)

Blessedly, the bulk of Novenas for a Lost Hospital, written by Cusi Cram, isn't quite as terrible as its overture, though perhaps we are so relieved to be expelled from that garden of awkwardness that anything would seem like an improvement. We wander around the corner to Rattlestick Playwrights Theater where we learn the history of St. Vincent's from none other than Elizabeth Ann Seton (Kathleen Chalfant playing America's first Catholic saint with palpable compassion and gravitas).

Through nine prayers, or Novenas (which are really just a series of interconnected short plays), we discover how the Sisters of Charity (Seton's order) founded St. Vincent's under inhospitable conditions. Whether it was cholera in the 19th century or AIDS in the 20th century, St. Vincent's was there for sick New Yorkers. But neither prayer nor penicillin could ward off the epidemic of gentrification, and St. Vincent's eventually fell into bankruptcy, its remains gobbled up by a luxury real estate developer. Multimillion-dollar apartments now stand where the sick and dying once sought care.

Kathleen Chalfant plays Elizabeth Ann Seton, and Alvin Keith plays Pierre Toussaint in Novenas for a Lost Hospital.
(© Julieta Cervantes)

Seton's cohost for the evening is the venerable Pierre Toussaint (a formidable Alvin Keith), a Haitian immigrant and contemporary of Seton's who rose from slavery to become the most sought-after hairdresser in New York (he is presently being considered for sainthood). Seton and Toussaint move through time to commune with an AIDS patient who returns from the brink of death three times (a sympathetic Ken Barnett). There's also his boyfriend (the magnetic Justin Genna), a choreographer who emphasizes the importance of roots in all things, including dance. Kelly McAndrew brilliantly embodies a series of characters, from a no-nonsense mother superior to an atheist nurse.

Director Daniella Topol leads her cast to respectable and often memorable performances, supported by a hit-and-miss design: Ari Fulton's costumes easily convey multiple periods; Brian Hickey and Sinan Zafar's sound design conjures voices from the past; Carolyn Mraz's set, with its hundreds of hanging blue butterflies and inspirational messages, is painfully twee; and Stacey Derosier's serviceable lighting helps to create the magic in a play that often feels like it is working overtime for magical moments.

Unfortunately, a play that features neurotic gay men with AIDS and their magical hallucinations was always going to run the risk of comparison to Tony Kushner's Angels in America, and Novenas for a Lost Hospital never quite steps out from that play's shadow. The more it aims for profundity, the more it misses the mark.

The cast leads the audience on a procession to the New York City AIDS Memorial in Novenas for a Lost Hospital.
(© Julieta Cervantes)

That includes an uncomfortable procession to the AIDS Memorial in front of the former hospital that brings the show in for a thud of a landing. The moment shouldn't feel as hollow as it does, considering the significance of that space: Equidistant from St. Vincent's, St. John's, and (not to be forgotten) the LGBT Community Center, the memorial exists at the center of a triangle of care for vulnerable New Yorkers, one side of which has now been erased. I poked fun at Marianne Williamson earlier in this review, but the self-help guru and presidential candidate is right about one thing: There is a spiritual crisis in America, and it becomes ever worse as centers of community (churches, hospitals, theaters) erode like melting glaciers.

And then there is the real physical crisis that we invite with our greed: Reflecting on the closure of St. Vincent's, a character asks, "Where the f*ck do we go when there's another epidemic?" The question hangs in the air like the sword of Damocles. Any student of drama would tell you about the dangers of hubris, and any Catholic nun would tell you about how pride goes before destruction. It's a lesson that the rich of Manhattan, in their glass towers, would do well to learn — but is anyone left in this city to teach them?