'The Last Confession': Theater Review

The Last Confession Theater Still - P 2014
Center Theatre Group

The Last Confession Theater Still - P 2014

Resolutely old-hat expository storytelling recounts the controversial “Year of Three Popes” and the accompanying political jockeying, corruption and possible murder in the Vatican. 

English actor David Suchet, best known for his long-running TV role as Agatha Christie's detective Poirot, stars in a story of corruption at the Vatican.

Organized around the star wattage of David Suchet, the celebrated and prolific British theater actor best known worldwide for his 74 television films as Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poiret, The Last Confession makes for a rather wan touring vehicle for his talents. Suchet originated the real-life role of Cardinal Giovanni Benelli at the Chichester Festival in 2007 and continued with a West End run, and this somewhat fusty enterprise, in Los Angeles en route from Toronto to all major Australian cities, charmingly recalls a tradition of the barnstorming impresario rarely encountered any longer in more cosmopolitan climes.

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Pope John XXIII died the year after he convened the Second Vatican Council, the most comprehensive reform enterprise in Catholic Church history, leaving its ambitions only partially realized. Conservative cardinals comprising the all-controlling centralized administration, The Curia, engineered the election of Paul VI (John O’May), a supporter of the reforms in principle but terminally equivocal in action. In the last year of his reign, nearly 80, Paul elevates the independent-minded Benelli to Cardinal of Florence, positioning him to become the next Pope. But Benelli, determined to thwart the reactionaries, become the kingmaker instead, anointing a pure-hearted pastoral priest, Cardinal Albino Luciani of Venice (Richard O’Callaghan), who adopts the conciliatory moniker John Paul I.

Nevertheless, the presumably overmatched new Pope turns out to be a dedicated revolutionary, pressing for doctrinal renunciation of Paul’s letter banning all forms of birth control, asserting his authority to audit the corrupt Vatican bank, and determining that he will remove wholesale the barriers to progress from their long-held positions of dominant power in the Vatican. He makes enemies that are too arrogant to obey papal authority, let alone infallibility, when it crosses their own entrenched interests.

Benelli, out of pride, improvidently waits to be called to become the new Secretary of State instead of intervening forcefully to support the new Pope he so admires. When John Paul dies suddenly and suspiciously after a mere 33 days in office, Benelli attempts to insure an autopsy and thorough investigation while campaigning to ascend to the throne of St. Peter himself.

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This was all compelling stuff as it unfolded back in 1978 and was only gradually and incompletely exposed, although it hard to imagine that anyone interested in the material is not already so familiar with it that the recounting lacks any inherent suspense. (Back in 1990, the Mafia involvement in the banking malfeasances became the murkiest subplot of The Godfather, Part III.) Suchet’s Benelli, with his strategic machinations in the service of a higher good, contains elements of his Tony-nominated Salieri on Broadway as well as some sly cross-examination reminiscent of his dogged Poirot. But the part, as written by Roger Crane, lacks persuasive inner conflict and compelling charismatic flourish, even with the addition of a never convincingly dramatized crisis of faith.

Essentially, The Last Confession relies almost entirely on the narrative intrigue of its storytelling, rendering it rarely more than expository, if admittedly keeping the complicated strands blessedly comprehensible and clear. Benelli is neither hero nor villain, and while Suchet makes him relatable, the role offers no challenge or opportunities for flamboyant gesture. There is neither Devil nor devilry here, despite hissable adversaries. So surprisingly, the most satisfying acting turns come from the most virtuous characters, from the small role of Cardinal Lorscheider (George Spartels) and most especially, the twinkly steel of the utterly sympathetic and heroically doomed John Paul I of O’Callaghan, who by felicitous accident rather deliciously conjures up impressions of current Pope Francis I.

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As old-fashioned commercial drama with rather anachronistic themes, The Last Confession is never a bad play, merely a conscientious one lacking relevance to serious concerns in the art of our own time. It could probably still be a bang-up time-passer on imported public television. 

Venue: Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles (runs through July 6)

Cast: David Suchet, Richard O’Callaghan, Nigel Bennett, Sam Parks, Donald Douglas, John O’May, Philip Craig, Stuart Milligan, George Spartels, Peter Harding, Roy Lewis, Bernard Lloyd, Kevin Colson, David Ferry, Sheila Ferris, Marvin Ishmael, David Bannerman, Ezra Bix, Pier Carthew, Mark Hammersley

Director: Jonathan Church

Playwright: Roger Crane

Set designer: William Dudley

Lighting designer: Peter Mumford

Costume designer: Fotini Dimou

Sound designer: Chris Cronin, Josh Liebert

Music: Dominic Muldowney

Presented by Chichester Festival Theatre