A quick walk around the West Village is enough to make you feel poor and boring almost immediately. I had dinner in the neighborhood before catching Cusi Cram’s Novenas for a Lost Hospital last week and everyone who passed me on the streets lined with pristine townhouses and Michelin Star restaurants seemed to be flaunting their bank accounts and their social cache. I saw not one, but two cars almost run down someone posting on Instagram. I salivated over real estate I’ll never afford while simultaneously wondering who exactly can afford to live in this quaint, exclusive enclave.
I live off the 3 train, and if I’m going to the Village, it’s often more effective for me to exit on the downtown side of the 14th Street station than to transfer to a 1 train to Christopher Street. What I never realized, though, being relatively new to New York (I’ve lived here six years) is that, when I do this, the glistening co-op monstrosity to my left used to be St. Vincent’s Hospital, a beacon of medical treatment in times of crisis for 161 years until it was closed under financial pressure in 2010. It was purchased by Rudin Management and the buildings that housed people in need were converted to luxury apartments.
This is the subject of Cram’s sometimes meandering, sometimes gut-punching, no, gut-twisting new play. She has us look back at the hospital in fragmentary glimpses, mostly – and most effectively – highlighting the work done in the HIV/AIDS ward, Spellman 7. It’s an elegy not only for the doctors, nurses, and patients who hopefully haunt the über rich that are now dwelling in their spaces, but for the neighborhood itself, for its loss of identity, for a New York that no longer exists.
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater is producing this world premiere in and around its Waverly Street space, effectively turning the play into an immersive experience. The prologue happens in a courtyard at St. John’s in the Village Episcopal Church, with the audience filing through a narrow tunnel called the “horse-walk” into a space marked by a green door that used to serve as a safe haven for people suffering with AIDS. Nurses come around with great porcelain bowls and pitchers of water and we communally wash our hands. We move through the courtyard and watch an AIDS patient cleanse himself with a sponge and basin through sheer fabric. The nurses “do ‘The Hustle’,” these men smiling and laughing, grasping and twirling each other. Between the historic location and the music and the late summer air, it’s transportive – you’re no longer in 2019, it’s the ‘80s and we’re in the height of the AIDS crisis. These are the ghosts who passed through the horse-walk before us.
Some of this mysticism is lost as we walk around the corner to Rattlestick’s theatre, where the actual meat of Cram’s play will take place. Before taking our seats in some repurposed church pews, Daniella Topol’s production has us walk around the space, perusing a museum-like installation with images from the hospital’s history. It’s helpful, and interesting, to take in these images before hearing about what happened there over sixteen decades, but the production is unable to sustain the ethereal mood established in the courtyard through this change of locale. The events in the courtyard feel non-performative, like we’ve all just happened to be there, but entering Rattlestick’s space feels very much like we’re there to see a play and we’re going to abide by the laws implied therein. The result is that the prologue then feels tacked on. If the mood and tone established in the prologue, no matter how effective it was, is not what will be carried forward, it feels more like a distraction than something necessary to the play.
The bulk of Cram’s writing concerns a from-the-dead visit by two saints. Or, one saint, Elizabeth Seton (Kathleen Chalfant), and an almost-saint, Pierre Toussaint (Alvin Keith) – he still has to perform a miracle from the dead to achieve full sainthood. Seton and Toussaint show up to mourn the loss of the hospital via novenas, or nine prayers said on consecutive days. Seton and Toussaint encounter an AIDS patient, Lazarus (Ken Barnett), whose soul has risen from his body and they lead him, Christmas Carol-style through some other moments in the hospital’s history. We also meet his late lover, JB (Justin Genna), a choreographer who succumbed to the syndrome and, even further back, doctors in the 1800s who treated a different kind of plague in the beginning of St. Vincent’s history.
Cram is most interested in St. Vincent’s as the center of the AIDS crisis, where many patients were given the best treatment they could ask for by a team of dedicated doctors and nurses. Lazarus and JB’s story is given prominence and when Barnett and Genna speak to each other or when Genna speaks with a kind nurse (Kelly McAndrew), the play comes alive and the walls and the floors and the ghosts of St. Vincent’s pick up the storytelling. In these moments, the play digs into that spiritual space-time plane established in the prologue. But when Cram volleys the text back to Seton and Toussaint and their narrative, direct-address, some of that power seeps out. It’s not that Chalfant and Keith aren’t captivating (they are – it’s Kathleen Chalfant for Christ’s sake), it’s that the shifts the play undertakes in these scenes are never fully satisfying and they leave a confused sort of haze over what Cram’s point is. These mutations between dialogue, character-to-character scenes and sections where they speak to the audience or carry a character to the past to look at a scene that doesn’t have much to do with him only deflate the momentum.
The play does reach a stunning apex, though. I won’t spoil it, but Seton’s physical form begins to represent the hospital itself and when we reach the day the emergency room shut down, the entire ensemble gathers to lament the mismanagement that caused it to close and the subsequent events that turned the medical institution into a multi-million dollar cooperative. Following this is the play’s best scene. A long-time resident of the West Village chats with her Millennial hairdresser about the changes in the neighborhood, the disappearance of St. Vincent’s, and how she can no longer afford to live in Manhattan. In the moment, it feels like an impeccable monologue from Kelly McAndrew, delivered with a painful sadness in her eyes, but a resigned, what-choice-do-I-have optimism in her voice. The script shows me that it’s not actually a monologue, but McAndrew’s performance is so keyed into what she’s saying, so connected to the themes of St. Vincent’s demise from monetary insatiability, that the theatre disappears and there’s only you and this woman and the death of New York City.
And then there’s an epilogue. We get up and we go outside again, parading through the streets with the full company to the AIDS Memorial in the shadow of the building that used to be St. Vincent’s. We each have a candle and we gather around the fountain and Kathleen Chalfant asks us to say the name of someone important to us as we place it where the water rushes into the ground. The people on the street look over and the people in their co-ops look down, wondering what we’re doing. We’re remembering. That’s the point of Novenas for a Lost Hospital, in my opinion. It’s not about the hospital, it’s about what the hospital represents: an era and a people that have disappeared.