First there’s the sound of switching radio stations. Then a screech of car brakes and a crash. Then the sound of a heart giving out its last beats. Lights up and we’re at a meeting room of a hospital where a group of doctors and hospital authorities are gathered to decide which of the many candidates will be the recipient of this heart. “The God Committee,” a predictable melodrama receiving its world preem in the Berkshires, falls into the category of medical ethics drama. But whose play is it anyway?
According to playwright Mark St. Germain, it’s about the group around the table, whose bios and personal biases affect their life-and-death decision for those awaiting the organ transplant. But far more interesting than these stereotypical medical characters onstage are the offstage candidates we only hear about but don’t see: those faceless names that move about on a large board like horses in a betting parlor as their fates are discussed during the course of this who-gets-it play.
But we don’t come into contact with any of these people. Instead, we are left with the men and women who “play God” and decide, in effect, who lives and dies. There’s the cold and arrogant surgeon; the beloved doctor who is dying of stomach cancer; the psychiatrist whose daughter recently OD’d; the jolly, wheelchair-using social services director; and the sassy black nurse who holds it all together. Add to the mix two newbies, which allows for a lot of background exposition to assist the audience: a young, insecure female doctor and a wry lawyer-priest representing the interests of the hospital board.
Of course, there’s a secret or two to be revealed at the appropriate time, as well as some character reversals to keep the plot percolating. But many of these twists aren’t all that surprising.
Though Germain possesses a good ear for snappy dialogue, he also succumbs to over-reaching (“We are the weapons of mass destruction,” says a doctor about our atrocity-filled world) and cliches (“We’re not looking at cases. We’re looking at people!” said, in effect, not just once but twice during the play).
The candidates for the sought-after heart on its way through St. Patrick’s Day traffic and revelry — at St. Patrick’s Hospital, no less — are a far more intriguing group, including a HIV-positive man, a poet who lives alone; a 68-year-old mother and former nurse who has already received a heart transplant and recently attempted suicide; and the young drug-addicted son of a wealthy board member (“He’s a one-man rat pack”) whose girlfriend may be pregnant.
The decisionmaking process gets complicated when the board member offers to donate $30 million to the hospital, presumably to enhance his son’s chances of receiving the heart.
The values of these candidates are debated, pressured by the time constraints of the heart’s impending arrival. (“We’ve got 36 minutes,” says one doctor. “It’s like a Nazi ‘Beat the Clock,’ ” responds another.) But it’s not only the worthiness of the heart candidates but of the doctors themselves that’s being evaluated, and in the end, people aren’t as pure as they seem.
David Saint directs the exposition-filled production with clarity and moves the action along swiftly. The actors all do well, especially Rasche as the afflicted doctor and Gerrit Graham as the sardonic lawyer-priest who has some of the best lines, including an Irish joke. (There’s always time for an Irish joke as the seconds are ticking away.)
Eric Renschler’s office setting is appropriately corporate and antiseptic.
While the play is diverting enough for a summer eve’s entertainment, future New York life is more iffy. However, a variation of it could do well as a TV pilot, a format that would allow the potentially more interesting offstage characters to appear. After all, a heart is a terrible thing to waste.