The God Committee
nytheatre.com review by Lauren Marks
March 28, 2006
The God Committee is a drama about a hospital transplant selection committee. Playwright Mark St. Germain deals with the issue of a panel of people who control the fate of their patients, deliberately selecting those they deem most worthy to live.
With roughly one heart donor for every ten people in need of a heart, the circumstances here are quite obviously fraught with drama. Seven people (three doctors plus a social worker, a psychiatrist, a nurse, and a priest) begin a meeting which starts simply enough. They are re-evaluating the patients on their transplant list, trying to decide who is to be upgraded. The candidates, whom we never meet, are as diverse as the decision makers. One is an older Hispanic mother, a community leader. Another is an overweight and unsuccessful poet, a mean-spirited pariah. Another is an older family man, the recipient of a transplant years before. He seems the most likely to receive the heart, but the wild card is the newest person on the list, a billionaire’s son, whose father is already a major contributor to the hospital. The meeting becomes ominously rushed when a heart suddenly becomes available and the group must deliberate as to who receives the organ in the next hour.
The criteria for organ donation, which are enumerated and described in the play, are as real as they are unbelievable. Age and race cannot be considered factors, though certain medical conditions that are related to those conditions must be. If a patient tests positive for drugs then he is not considered, as he is deemed likely to abuse his new organs as his last ones. Wealth cannot be a consideration, but insurance (and its willingness or reticence to support a surgery) most definitely matters. The play does give one a sense of the true inexactness of this selection process, and begs questions as to whether such a process can ever be anything other than accidental at best. Onstage, the presence of a billionaire on the list is the elephant in the room. When it is made clear that the billionaire’s father has pledged the hospital 50 million dollars since his son was added to the list, another complication emerges.
St Germain’s play, directed by Kevin Moriarty, clearly has all the characteristics of a successful drama: a central important event, characters forced to confront each other in a confined time and space, and complications that arise in their due course. However, in spite of this, something about the play never fully materializes. Though the situation is both grave and tense, the characters and the script are not as strong as they need to be to carry the magnitude of the story.
The characters tend to be a bit stock. The cold (but incredibly proficient) surgeon, whose calculations border on cruel. The hard-as-nails nurse, whom nothing gets past, and who, deep down, has a heart of gold. The aging, but universally liked, head of the department, who is reaching the end of his time at the hospital. Perhaps the characters themselves are not the problem, but the way the script glosses over them without probing is troublesome. The people onstage are both totally believable and ultimately predictable, which makes it quite difficult to sympathize with any of them, and thereby hard to decide with whom one wants to place their loyalties. Even their surprises tend to be not that surprising. In spite of this, the play does feature some excellent performances, especially from actors Larry Keith (as the senior Dr. Klee), Michael Mulheren (as the priest), and Ron Orbach (the wheelchair-bound social worker).
St. Germain sets the play in real time, with a clock onstage constantly drawing attention to a fast-approaching deadline, by which time the crucial decision must be made. The detail is very effective. Beowulf Borrit’s set is picture perfect, both realistic and suggestive, and bears every necessary resemblance to the kind of mundane space in which otherwise ordinary people play God. The onstage sound, which provides some important cues, is less perfected, as it distractingly seems to always be emanating from the same space and at the same level.
Regardless of any qualms about the play, The God Committee is both well-conceived and timely. St. Germain admits that he was inspired to write the play when a friend’s father found himself in need of a transplant. And with the play itself supported by the New York Organ Donor network, it would be impossible to say that this isn’t a socially responsible look into an important dramatic issue. However, when a person’s life and death are discussed over a boardroom table and diet cokes, there is potential to create a truly complex examination of human beings, of conscience, of morals, and of fate. The play falls just short of this complexity, and instead remains more straightforward in its questioning of the issues at hand. It is, however, a worthy introduction to an incredibly complicated and otherwise clandestine world, that audience members are likely to be enriched by.