The Last Confession
Reviewed by Bob Verini
Through July 6
The Last Confession
Reviewed by Bob Verini
Through July 6
The current tenant at the Ahmanson, Roger Craig’s The Last Confession, made me think about Charlton Heston and Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
The Heston musings may be the more surprising. But however you may feel about his stature as an actor, or his latter-year turn to the right and NRA leadership, Heston and the Ahmanson were prominently associated in the public’s mind in the 1970s and 1980s, thanks to his rarely letting a year go by without appearing there in a play of substance. Some credit his sold-out runs in the likes of A Man for All Seasons, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and Macbeth (co-starring with Vanessa Redgrave) as having played a major part in keeping the Ahmanson afloat. Certainly he helped to keep alive the tradition of home-grown drama in our most majestic playhouse.
That tradition is a bygone thing today, now that the Ahmanson less often serves as a venue for serious drama than as a tryout platform for Broadway-bound musicals, or as a rival to the Pantages in attracting A-list Broadway tours. So it’s a pleasure whenever the venerable Music Center house plays host to legit drama.
And boy, would Heston have salivated at being handed the role of Cardinal Giovanni Benelli, currently assumed by David Suchet (of PBS Poirot fame). A Vatican insider and Pope-maker, Benelli sought liberalization of the Roman Catholic Church by championing the cause of ill-fated reformer Pope John Paul I. Yet he seems to have been paralyzed by his own wavering faith, which many (including Crane) argue kept him from winning the papacy — his for the asking. An idealistic yet politically savvy schemer torn by doubt? Heston would have leapt to play it. Most actors would.
To be sure, The Last Confession isn’t a home-grown attraction. It’s another tour, this one from the UK’s Chichester Festival Theatre under the direction of Jonathan Church (the program suggests indebtedness to the play’s original stager, the late David Jones). Moreover, it has its problems as a functioning dramatic text. But it’s got morality and religion and the public sphere on its mind, a trifecta to which the Ahmanson hasn’t played host in a while. Therefore, those absorbed by the drama of ideas and political infighting should make this show, running through July 6, a high priority. Who knows when its like will swing by again?
On the debit side, the play seems convinced that its audience will arrive knowing less than nothing about the Vatican, Papal history, and the inner workings of the Catholic Church. In that conviction it may be justified, but the upshot is that the characters are constantly forced to express to each other facts and insights they would surely already know. In conversations, and occasionally in clunky direct address, they share exposition and character descriptions that would be unnecessary to the participants in real life. This didacticism lends the play a distinctly artificial, speechified air. Also, Crane’s command of ending scenes with a “button” is on the limited side: I lost count after seven the number of scenes which culminate in some ominous reference to God as the ultimate judge or determinant of events. Crane isn’t the most supple of dramatists in this, his maiden effort.
It doesn’t help that designer William Dudley’s distinguished credits, including seven Olivier Awards, haven’t prevented him from delivering up a cluttered, ugly, distracting set consisting of portals and grillwork whose movements fail to evoke location or mood with any new orientation. Nor is Church’s direction conducive to gripping stage pictures; the two-score UK thespians seem to glide in and out almost as if they had magnets beneath them for propulsion.
But they are wonderful thespians in the main, and none more than Suchet, whose Benelli is an even craftier power broker than his Salieri in the NY revival of Amadeus a few years ago. His ability to work out complex thought in the moment, as if it had never occurred to him before, will be no surprise to those of us who revel in his incarnation of Agatha Christie’s peerless Belgian sleuth. But even long-time Suchet boosters – and my admiration dates back to a heartbreaking Shylock in a London Merchant of Venice in the early ‘80s– may be astonished by his ability to remain still while maintaining primary focus, and then to take thunderous control of the moment with one whipcrack line of dialogue. (Young actors who aspire to stage stardom could have no more useful role model to study.)
Once the early history is out of the way, and we can sort out the dozen or more assembled prelates as villains, pawns or decent fellows, The Last Confession takes on Caine Mutiny Court-Martial intensity and interest, what with the Pope’s mysterious death (after only 33 days); Benelli’s dogged investigation, worthy of Hercule Poirot himself; and the denouement that installs the first non-Italian pontiff since 1523. The exposition successfully delivered, this proves to be crackerjack stuff.
As for the current occupier of the Shoes of the Fisherman, Pope Francis nee Cardinal Bergoglio, he will surely come to mind as the much less familiar John Paul I is introduced to U.S. audiences. That gentle man evidently desired to revamp the Vatican Curia, and wrest the Church from its bureaucrats’ claws into the needier hands of its ordinary people. This intention provided more than enough motivation enough for his murder, if murder it was. (The play, it’s no spoiler to reveal, keeps an open mind but possesses an unmistakable slant.)
The point is that the first John Paul wasn’t around long enough to announce his desire to forge a leaner, more sincere, more progressive Church, and his two successors, serving for 35 years in total, fueled few hopes of anything more than business as usual. But Pope Francis has come along in a very different and humbler vein, at least somewhat more progressive in outlook, and evidently more engaged with the world in all its dimensions, not just with the corridors of power.
It’s too soon to know in which directions he will steer his flock. But everyone who is aware of the enormous influence any Pope can have on the world is watching Francis. They will see, in the tentative steps of John Paul I (played beautifully as a dear, bumbling, saintly Don Camillo by Richard O’Callaghan), a potential precursor of changes that the real-life Vatican may have in store. For all the play’s clumsiness, such resonances keep The Last Confession on the near side of heaven.
Center Theatre Group at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Dwntwn.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m. (no 6:30 perf June 29; no perf July 4; added perf Thurs., June 26, 2 p.m.); through July 6. (213) 972-4100, centertheatregroup.org