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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The Last Confession
By Jon Magaril
The plot takes us back to the late 1970's. In fact, the entire production could take place then. It's throwback theater, though some elements have become so rare they could count as new again. As Robert Bolt and Peter Shaffer used to do, Crane refreshingly employs a large twenty-one member cast to explore the clash between power and faith, .
The problem is Crane, a lawyer by trade, lacks a theatrical imagination. Fortunately he's got good taste in forebears. His fealty to the '79 Amadeus is strong. Both open with a dying central figure who demands, as his last will and testament, to make a public confession to a resistant priest. The explosive last lines of Confession's opening scene catapult us back to both the final days Pope Paul VI and Schaffer's own speculative work: "Forgive me father for I have sinned. I have killed the emissary of God."
The casting also calls to mind the Shaffer classic. Two decades ago at the Ahmanson, David Suchet played Salieri. As Benelli, he provides similar intelligence, drive, and focus but with nary a moment of spontaneity. Suchet's approach might have worked if his high dudgeon eventually ascended to a lofty grace. Alas, his contribution remains earthbound. This fits the entire production, which is directed with crisp alacrity and little nuance by the aptly named Jonathan Church.
He and Crane might argue that much of this is intentional. By exposing the Vatican's secretive administrative body to the light, they're showing the supposedly vaunted organization is merely business as usual. The financial management is shady and most of its leaders are cool calculators, interested more in turf battles than spreading the word of God.
At first, pulling back the red velvet curtain fascinates. It's the fraught era after Pope John XXIII's Second Vatican Council, which aimed to open the Church to the rest of the world. Conservative Cardinals have relentlessly pressured his successor, an equivocating Pope Paul VI, not to enact the Council's liberal reforms. Now that he's dying, they and the liberals, led by Benelli, battle each other to choose a pope who will further their respective agendas.
Benelli at least occupies a moral high ground. When his ambitions to the papacy come a cropper, he backs Cardinal Luciani (Richard O'Callaghan), so humble he instinctively rejects any talk of higher office. With Benelli's promise of abiding support and appeals to Luciani's sense of duty, the "naive and innocent" cleric acquiesces. The conservatives, led by Head of State Cardinal Villot (a persuasively daunting Nigel Bennett), accept him as a compromise with the belief that his meekness will make him compliant.
Elected Pope, and taking on the name John-Paul I, Luciani answers our prayers by presenting a man of the cloth worth respecting. O'Callaghan similarly saves the production by eschewing the emphatic, clipped delivery of the other actors. His unaffected manner bespeaks a compelling inner life.
The problem is Crane and Church offer little help in exploring anything deeply. A lawyer by trade, Crane writes scenes built on terse, well-reasoned argument. This grows wearisome by intermission, but the second act offers compelling action as John-Paul I finds the strength to take on Villot and his clique of reactionary Cardinals.
When John-Paul I is found dead, Benelli battles the Cardinals for the right to investigate whether the Pope has been murdered. His queries have the juicy satisfaction of the finales in a Masterpiece Mystery featuring Suchet's wonderful Poirot. Benelli's guilt over betraying his promise to support and protect John-Paul I provides the actor with an opportunity to soften his portrayal. But Suchet keeps the righteousness and brisk pace in the foreground.
In these final scenes Crane legal background, with its presumed training of how to build an argument, pays off. While he's literate, the neophyte playwright is too literal. Director Church suffers from the same limitation. Faced with the challenge of presenting scenes in which our narrator wasn't present, Crane has Benelli provide his confessor (Philip Craig) with plodding, introductory exposition. And Church exacerbates the problem by bringing the pair in from the wings after the set pieces have been planted and having them watch the scenes from on the sidelines like Scrooge and one of his ghosts visiting Christmas past.
It's all so prosaic. Peter Mumford swims against that tide with a lighting design that's simultaneously dramatic and ethereal. William Dudley's set design is built on a compelling idea. The ornate backdrop, dominated by red, glorious evokes the Vatican but our view is blocked by black and gold towering structures of doors and windows. Beauty is always beckoning but out of reach.
Like so much else though, the set is bogged down by a lack of grace. To mark a change of location, the towers are moved this way and that, along with desks and chairs, by stagehands and the actor/priests. Like a badly managed church service, there's no sense of occasion or ritual.
The final scene boasts a satisfying surprise. But it's just a clever trick. In this Last Confession, only O'Callaghan seems to be a true believer. He alone trusts that, in theater as in church, simplicity laced with mystery can seem divine.