When Pope Paul VI (Donald Douglas) dies in 1978, factions within the Catholic Church struggle to replace him with someone who will espouse their particular views. The conservatives, led by Cardinal Felici (John O'May) and Cardinal Jean Villot (Nigel Bennett), want to reverse the progressive changes of the Second Vatican Council. Cardinal Benelli (David Suchet) wants a pope that will serve the people, and he manages to get the kind Cardinal Luciani (Richard O'Callaghan) elected. Pope John Paul (as Luciani is now known) tries to shake things up, firing Felici and his cabal, but dies of a dubious heart attack that same night before his changes can be put into effect.
Suchet remains a captivating actor, but he's given almost nothing of substance to do as Benelli, in what is essentially a glorified narrator role. Those looking for him to have an opportunity to display his stage talents will need to look elsewhere. O'May and Bennett both glower effectively as the antagonists, and Douglas has a nice scene where he reveals his fears about the inadequacy of his papacy. Luciani gets the most depth as written, and O'Callaghan makes him a sympathetic and slyly amusing figure.
Jonathan Church's direction does little to liven up or otherwise distinguish this show. Actors walk onstage, they walk off. William Dudley's design consists of three set pieces that display a different type of door on each side, which get turned around pointlesslyhey, look, it's a different door! Crane's play is the real problem, however. It presents the audience with a group of interchangeable looking and sounding characters that drown out any dramatic stakes with a surfeit of verbiage. This is a stereotypical "prestige production," featuring a known star and important subject matter, but this play, sadly, is resoundingly hollow.
The Last Confession plays at the Ahmanson Theatre through July 6. For tickets and information, see www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.
Center Theatre Group, Paul Elliott and Duncan C. Weldon, Liza McLean, TRH Productions & Karl Sydow present The Chichester Festival Theatre production of The Last Confession, written by Roger Crane. Directed by Jonathan Church. Design William Dudley; Costume Design Fotini Dimou; Lighting Design Peter Mumford; Music Composed by Dominic Muldowney; Sound Design Chris Cronin and Josh Liebert; Deputy Stage Manager Amanda Hillhouse.
Photo: Craig Schwartz