Hard-hitting and resolute, The God Committee is definitely an issue play. Mark St. Germain's exceedingly well-detailed work takes its audience into the world of organ transplant assignment, a world that's full, it is easy to see, of necessary evils. At the Lamb's Theater, Beowulf Boritt's set is designed to perfectly replicate a conference room where seven protagonists convene to vote on which patients are prime candidates to receive an organ donation. It is St. Patrick's Day, and while there is plenty of revelry outside of the hospital, the mood inside is dire. There are three candidates for a new heart: a 68-year-old woman and community leader, who is also a former nurse; a curmudgeonly failed poet; and the reckless son of a billionaire who has promised a $50 million windfall to the hospital. Whether the third patient tests positive for cocaine use will be a key factor in determining who gets the heart.
Director Kevin Moriarty has taken an interesting approach: the audience is divided in half with the production occurring in the middle. This fly-on-the-wall technique forces the two sides to face each other as they watch the action, thus making everyone feel complicit in the action at hand. What would you do? St. Germain asks.
While the plot of God Committee is accessible, meat-and-potatoes entertainment, what makes the show truly riveting is how well the piece works as a character study. The terrific Larry Keith stars as Dr. Jack Klee, who presides over the committee despite (and perhaps clouded by) a cancer diagnosis. He had been replaced during a medical leave of absence by a curt, no-nonsense doctor, Alex Gorman (Peter Jay Fernandez), who rubs everyone the wrong way, particularly psychiatrist Ann Ross (Amy Van Nostrand) and Keira Banks (Maha Chehlaoui), a young resident serving as a proxy for the doctor bringing the heart in question to New York. Ross suffers from her own, more personal tragedy—her only daughter's recent death by drug overdose.
The other members of this important board are a disabled social worker, Dominick Piero (Ron Orbach); a sage nurse Nella Larkin (Brenda Thomas); and a priest Charles Dunbar (Michael Mulheren). Dunbar has been assigned by the hospital board to observe the committee. Even though he cannot vote, he is a former litigator who knows how to provoke people into doing what he wants while they think they are acting on their own. And given that these characters spend the 75 minutes trying to out-persuade each other, his skills go a very long way. Every seemingly innocent question and polite interjection is actually a well-thought-out ploy to make one of the other board members change his or her mind.
It is fascinating to watch the fireworks ensue in Moriarty's taut production. Virtually every person has his or her own agenda to fight for, and these characters often clash. St. Germain is to be commended for creating such three-dimensional people—Gorman, for example, may be despicable, but he often makes the most ethical and fiscal sense. Klee and Piero, on the other hand, while far more sympathetic, each have their own personal prejudices. Van Nostrand in particular gives a heart-wrenching performance, as Ross constantly suffers from parental guilt and self-blame.
St. Germain is a master of verisimilitude. All the conversations sound as if lifted straight from real life. But while his dialogue is utterly believable, I wish he hadn't made Ross so vocal when it came to her feelings—some of her suffering should have remained implicit, adding to the character's subtext.
The only weak link in this sturdy chain is Chehlaoui. Yes, Banks's idealistic nature should stand her in stark contrast to her more pragmatic colleagues, but as a performer, her vocal intonations sound too shrill and artificial. It is an especially uneven matchup in any scene with Keith or Mulheren, two theatrical heavyweights who make every word and gesture count, and so naturally convince us that they are coming up with their lines and behavior right then in the moment.
What a treat it is to watch such pros at play. As they inhabit these characters, we never feel they are acting. Moriarty and St. Germain have given audiences access to two very different worlds of people working at the top of their craft—the doctors who make these unimaginably difficult decisions and the performers who bring them so vividly to life.