Usually when people say a play needs more of a heart, they don't mean it literally. That's a difficult, if not inapt, criticism to apply to Mark St. Germain's new play The God Committee, at the Lamb's Theatre, as it's an intentionally heart-deficient story about a group of seven people who don't know what to do with the one heart they have.
They're members of the board of St. Patrick's Metropolitan Hospital, charged with determining which of four patients should receive the one heart they have to transplant. Should it go to the overweight African-American man who might not last out the year, the HIV-positive poet with no family, the Hispanic woman who just suffered a massive drug overdose, or the dashing young socialite whose father is willing to donate $50 million to the hospital?
A no-brainer, you say? Maybe. But just as each member of the board thinks he or she knows who should receive the heart, new information arises that causes them to rethink their positions and start from scratch. One recipient might be a drug addict, another might have attempted suicide, a third might beg for the transplant outright - and whether even those impressions are correct also remains to be seen. Nothing, at any time, may be taken at face value.
That's both the pleasure and pain of St. Germain's play, which has been directed by Kevin Moriarty with the sterile efficiency you'd expect of a show with a hospital board room setting (the scrubbed-clean set is by Beowulf Boritt). While this aspires to be a great theatrical nail-biter along the lines of 1776 - as if in homage, a central fixture of Boritt's set is a whiteboard on which each committee member's vote is tallied and retallied - it becomes so fixated on tangling, untangling, and retangling its various plot threads that it never pauses to create characters for us to care about.
Instead, we get a roster full of clichéd types, guaranteed to generate the most tension in the least amount of time (the play, which unfolds in more or less real time, runs a super-trim 75 minutes): the ambitious, hard-headed cardiologist (Peter Jay Fernandez); the loyal-to-a-fault registered nurse who runs the proceedings (Brenda Thomas); the aging, patriarchal doctor (Larry Keith) looking out for the hospital and his own reputation; the psychiatrist who can't divorce herself from her work, even when it comes to her own family (Amy Van Nostrand); the well-meaning, eccentric social worker (Ron Orbach); the priest, also the committee's lawyer (Michael Mulheren); and even the youthful, innocent proxy filling in for another doctor who must first learn to vote her own conscience (Maha Chehlaoui).
The characters, such as they are, are drawn and acted as thoughtfully as could be desired under the circumstances. When certain performers push too much (as frequently happens with Fernandez and Orbach), it's only because they're being herded into staid emotional territory that would foil even our most acclaimed talents. ("Money isn't just what people want, it's what they are," is one typical plaint.) But these characters develop only when convenient, which makes them seem like symbols of The Problem rather than people we're supposed to cheer or jeer for.
This cooling, distancing effect is oddly effective at putting you in their positions; it doesn't take as long for you to feel as ambivalent about who receives the heart as they do. For them, after all, it's just another day at the office; for someone else, it's truly a matter of life and death. St. Germain and Moriarty manage that dichotomy well, even if they occasionally run into difficulties resolving a rather ridiculous race-against-the-clock subplot (the heart's on its way to the hospital - oh no, traffic jam!) in a non-silly fashion.
Overall, The God Committee has the clinical feeling of an infomercial for organ donation; the requisite statistics about how many people need hearts versus how many people actually donate them fly predictably fast and furious at times. As this production has been supported by the New York Organ Donor Network, this is perhaps not surprising. But neither those numbers nor much else here will set your own heart beating faster.
The God Committee