Los Angeles Theater Review: THE LAST CONFESSION (Center Theatre Group at the Ahmanson)

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by Paul Birchall on June 13, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles

PERHAPS THE POPE WAS BORED TO DEATH

The Ahmanson stage is awash with white-haired old men in long sweeping gowns.  No, it’s not the old folks’ home production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert.  Rather, the touring production of The Last Confession crackles and blusters with Cardinals, Archbishops, and Popes; these are the characters inhabiting playwright Roger Crane’s noble but almost comically pompous drama about the conspiracy surrounding the death of the first Pope John Paul.

David Suchet in “The Last Confession.” Written by Roger Crane and directed by Jonathan ChurchCrane’s drama aspires to be a towering philosophical opus about the inner workings of the Vatican.  This is, in fact, intrinsically interesting subject matter.  After all, who wouldn’t want to be a fly on the wall at the Great Conclave, where Cardinals vote on the next Pope?  The secret Vatican conclave has made for great entertainment before:  The drama was intense and powerful in The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968), and even the silly Angels and Demons (2009), but the excitement centered on the traditions of Catholic ritual, not a silly terrorist plot.

Here’s a drama that has folks yapping and pontiff-icating about Vatican bank scandals, whom to vote in as the next pope, and whom to exile by sending him to be the Archbishop of Venice (which doesn’t sound so bad to me, really).  Yet even with the production’s cavernous trappings, which are a little like St. Peter’s Basilica in their grandiosity, the show’s a bit of a dry trudge:  It’s an intelligent drama whose own cerebral elements get in its way, serving up fusty as if it was a church bake-sale coffeecake.

George Spartels, John O’May, Richard O’Callaghan, David Suchet (kneeling center), Philip Craig, Nigel Bennett and Marvin Ishmael in “The Last Confession.” Written by Roger Crane and directed by Jonathan ChurchIn the 1970s, elderly Cardinal Benelli (David Suchet) summons a mysterious Priest (Phillip Craig) to his palazzo so he can make a late night confession:  He considers himself responsible for the death of the Pope.  The story flashes back: Ailing Pope Paul (Donald Douglas) relies on Benelli as his right hand man, even though Benelli is loathed by the conservative “old guard” of the Vatican, including vile, gloatingly corrupt Vatican Bank moneybags, Bishop Marcinkus (Stuart Milligan).  After Pope Paul dies, Benelli manages to manipulate the Cardinals to elect sweet and idealistic Cardinal Luciani (Richard O’Callghan), who becomes Pope John Paul, as his successor.  However, Pope John Paul’s idealistic reforms run afoul of the powers that be and he dies a mysterious death just 33 days into his reign.  Who dunnit?  Was it Cardinal Ottaviani (Bernard Lloyd) with the poisoned candies?  Or did Cardinal Felici supply tainted medicine?

David Suchet in “The Last Confession.” Written by Roger Crane and directed by Jonathan ChurchI remember the reign of Pope John Paul back in the early 70s quite well:  His entire papacy occurred while I was at summer camp for a month at the old Catalina Boys Summer Camp. I went to camp the day of his Coronation, and I came home just after he died.   Since then, it has remained one of recent religious history’s great enduring mysteries.

And yet, playwright Crane reduces it to a tedious moral debate, with a cast of identical parts (none of the Cardinals has a whit of personality to define them) humphing and eating the scenery like they’re chowing down on a barrel of chocolate-covered communion wafers.  The writing is downright flat and ponderous, with characters in cassocks pompously orating and huffing lines like “Faith (harrumph) does not serve Man (harrumph).  Maaaaan serves faaaaaaaith!”  The exception to this is a brief sequence in the second act, when Cardinal Hercule Poirot—excuse me, Suchet as Cardinal Benelli—interrogates various witnesses as to their alibis on the night of the apparent Papal Murder.

John O’May, Richard O’Callaghan and Nigel Bennett in “The Last Confession.” Written by Roger Crane and directed by Jonathan ChurchWilliam Dudley’s gorgeous set, which contains a glowing Sistine Chapel backdrop, as well as patches of stylized antique furniture that aptly craft the Papal mood, is remarkably detailed.  On the other hand, director Jonathan Church’s workmanlike staging is rife with old men sitting in chairs and waving their arms a lot.  His actors are so straightforward—the default emotion on stage appears to be “bluster”—that we are left with nothing to do but ponder which identical old blowhard is wearing which red gown.  And with Suchet’s turn running the gamut from grim to super-grim, the real mystery remains:  How did this potentially rich papal thriller become so plodding?

George Spartels, Nigel Bennett, Bernard Lloyd, David Suchet, Roy Lewis and Peter Harding in “The Last Confession.”  Written by Roger Crane and directed by Jonathan Church

photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

The Last Confession
Center Theatre Group
Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave
scheduled to end on July 6, 2014
for tickets, call (213) 972-4400 or visit www.CenterTheateGroup.org

{ 1 comment }

Deborah Klugman June 13, 2014 at 5:34 pm

Another wonderfully witty and on target review by my esteemed colleague. Thanks, Paul.

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