Theater review by Helen Shaw
When St. Vincent’s Hospital closed in 2010, a 160-year-long history of inpatient care came to an end. The sprawling Roman Catholic complex, which had been welcoming to the poor and the excluded, collapsed under its billion-dollar debt, leaving a hole in the West Village. During its long operation, the hospital treated many plagues—cholera, typhoid fever, AIDS—but if Cusi Cram’s mournful Novenas for a Lost Hospital is right, it was our particular brand of laissez-mourir capitalism that managed to kill the place in the end.
A playwright who lives in the Village, Cram has double reason to think about ephemeral and vanishing things. Novenas for a Lost Hospital pays tribute to St. Vincent’s in a quasi-religious dreamplay, a fragmented epic that scrolls through images from Catholicism, neighborhood communalism and the history of a busy hospital. Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton (Kathleen Chalfant) and 18th-century hairdresser-philanthropist Pierre Toussaint (Alvin Keith) discuss the Church; a nervous 19th-century doctor (Leland Fowler) practices his surgical cuts; an AIDS patient (Justin Genna) dances while dying; Kelly McAndrew and Natalie Woolams-Torres play nurses from many eras. Director Daniella Topol meets this overflowing, hectic, sometimes frustrating structure with her own superabundance of gestures, including an outdoor prologue, a sound installation, a candlelight vigil and a parade.
Be warned: The evening is long. All told, it’s two and a half hours of meditation on St. Vincent’s, and the result is very like a religious service in which one’s mind wanders as much as it focuses. There are lovely sequences and forgettable ones; the play’s tone alternates between earnest sermonizing (about white privilege and our forgotten duty of care) and scenes of joy amid the ashes. As a play, it’s wobbly, but as an invitation to think about serious issues, it’s welcome. Luckily, too, it revolves around the remarkable Chalfant, whose aura drifts over and through it all. This always elegant actor has abandoned her usual reserve for intense warmth, and as the evening finishes with a collective invocation of the lost, she attains a wonderful transparent effect, gathering up our grief and letting it pass through her. Novenas isn’t a perfect show; at times it is even awkward. But that moment is a blessing.
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (Off Broadway). By Cusi Cram. Directed by Daniella Topol. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 30mins. One intermission.
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