Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

The Vatican as Political Hotbed: “The Last Confession” offers Papal mystery

David Suchet as a Vatican political manipulator in "The Last Confession" at the Ahmanson [photo: Craig Schwartz]

David Suchet as a Vatican political manipulator in “The Last Confession” at the Ahmanson [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Okay, I’ll confess. I’m hooked on mysteries: novels, BBC series, unrealistic forensic-based television icons (albeit in small doses), reality shows, you name it. The best are those fraught with intrigue and political wrangling. Add a touch of an unknown society, or of religious dogma, and it just gets better. So, you can imagine my excitement at seeing David Suchet (yes, “Poirot” to most American viewers) in Roger Crane’s “The Last Confession.”

Now at the Ahmanson Theatre in its one US stop before heading to Australia, “The Last Confession” is perhaps best categorized as a psychological thriller. A high ranked cardinal in the Catholic political sphere looks back at the events surrounding the short tenure of Pope John Paul I, whose 33-day reign in 1978 has been the source of philosophical statement, myth and conspiracy theory ever since. Cardinal Benelli (Suchet) is dying, and in his confession he examines his responsibility and influence in, first, the election and then the death of this brief pontiff.

There are two possible pitfalls in all of this. First, one must avoid turning this into a philosophical panel discussion. Second, one must avoid turning the whole thing into a collection of ridiculous conspiracy theories worthy of Dan Brown.

Certainly, the energized direction of Jonathan Church and the fascinating modular set of William Dudley keep the first from happening. And by and large, one avoids the second through two separate actions, from both the director and the script itself: concentrating on character as much or more then on the mystery, and developing an underlying philosophical conversation on the priorities of any man leading the Vatican.

Suchet creates an interestingly intersected man. As power broker, Benelli fights his own ambitions by promoting someone deemed pure and innocent of the Vatican intrigues, while his struggles with faith and a fear of the status quo lead him to abandon the pope he created to his fate. Philip Craig gives Benelli’s confessor a hardness which makes the questions asked and answered particularly sharp, and offers a few surprises of his own.

As the simple cardinal made Pope, Richard O’Callaghan provides an antithesis to the general tension, carrying with him an inner calm that can be humorous and remains unflappable. It makes for delicious contrast with the general aggressiveness of those in the Curia. Likewise, as the assistants he brings with him into the Vatican, Sam Parks and Sheila Ferris contribute to the humor and humanity of this man quickly become the outsider in an insider’s game.

Indeed, when it comes to performance, the ensemble is universally strong. Worthy of special note are Donald Douglas, as the amiable Pope Paul VI, balancing opposing forces with diplomacy, Stuart Milligan as the bishop whose charge of the Vatican Bank comes with mafia connections, and Nigel Bennett as the ferocious defender of the norm whose powerful push to thwart the new pope proves overwhelming.

In the midst of this sort-of whodunit, filled as it is (whether truthfully or not) with all the politics and power struggles of a great political mystery, a subtextual, and textual wrestle with faith has its moments. Sadly, it all builds toward a potentially intense conclusion that simply doesn’t happen. All the sizzle drains out in a last-minute twist which proves unpredictable, not in a particularly satisfactory way. Instead of leaving the play with satisfyingly complicated scenario to chew over, one leaves scratching one’s head.

That the Vatican is full of intrigue is not news. One only has to follow either the upper reaches of the church in its the reaction to priestly misconduct or the prosecutions of high ranking Vatican personnel to know that. And the new Pope Francis, in his recent announcement of the excommunication of all mafia members makes some of the drama within this play almost pale by comparison. Still, it is fun to speculate on the inner workings of such an insular place, and what that can do to essentially good people. If only, in the end, there was a more satisfying “there” there.

What: “The Last Confession” When: Through July 6, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., at the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $20 – $105 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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