The Catholic Church always seems to be involved in some sort of scandal. The scandals range from the ongoing revelations of the molestation of young altar boys by pedophile priests or the mistreatment of unwed mothers by autocratic nuns (brilliantly shown in the recent film Philomena) or the financial problems of the Vatican Bank which resurfaced earlier this year. There was an earlier scandal about the Vatican Bank and the mysterious death of Pope John Paul I, events that featured heavily in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather III. They are also the key elements in The Last Confession, Roger Crane’s play now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre.
Cardinal Benelli (a brilliant David Suchet) was a leading force in the elections of both Pope John Paul I and then of Pope John Paul II after his own candidacy was stalemated. He has been haunted by the sudden death of John Paul I after only 33 days in office and, facing his own death, he has written a confession telling all the sordid details. The Confessor (Philip Craig) who shows up to hear Benelli’s confession wants the written confession destroyed. It’s a battle of wills as the story flashes back to the events leading up to this purging of the soul.
There is plenty of intrigue behind the closed doors of the Vatican as the long-tenured Cardinals who wield the real power of the Church refuse to give in to the idealistic reformer John Paul I. They oppose him on everything from birth control and test tube babies to the Vatican Bank’s ties to the Mafia. They hope to drown him in paperwork and minutiae but when he finally decides to remove them from Rome and send them back to their home parishes, he must be dealt with swiftly. No autopsy, the quick removal of the Pope’s personal possessions, the differing stories of who found him and when, the disappearance of a key witness and more all lead to a high level investigation among the cardinals. Even though it seems apparent there may have been foul play involved, the Church covers up the details and proceeds to elect a new pope.
Crane’s script is precise and detailed and plays like a murder mystery thriller and is directed perfectly by Jonathan Church. William Dudley’s set design of swiveling metal gratings and doors easily morphs into the many different rooms of the Vatican and Peter Mumford’s lighting brilliantly sets the mood. The cast is sublime, headed by David Suchet whose every word, every gesture commands attention. His naked ambition is on display as is his sense of justice. Richard O’Callaghan makes a delightfully open and humble Pope John Paul I. Stuart Milligan is appropriately shifty as the American Bishop Marcinkus (from Cicero, Illinois home of Al Capone), head of the Vatican Bank. Nigel Bennett is a dynamic force as the dictatorial Vatican Secretary of State. Strong support is given my John O’May and Kevin Colson as fellow plotters. No matter what your religious affiliation, you can’t help but be swept up in the political intrigues unveiled here. The debate for the heart and soul of the Catholic Church has raged on for centuries and even more so in these modern times. The Last Confession brings that conflict vividly to life.
Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in Los Angeles. Ends July 6. 213-972-4400 or www.centertheatregroup.org