THE LAST CONFESSION by Roger Crane (Chichester Festival/Mirvish). At the Royal Alexandra (260 King West). Runs to June 1. $35-$119. 416-872-1212. See listing. Rating: NN
The Last Confession doesn't heat up as drama until an interrogation scene midway through act two. That's rather apropos, because the show's marquee name, David Suchet, is best known for playing detective Hercule Poirot on TV, so he knows how to enliven the whole questioning and cross-examination thing.
Suchet swaps Poirot's moustache and basic black for a cardinal's robes in Roger Crane's play based on a theory about the death of Pope John Paul I, whose 33-day reign in 1978 was the shortest in history.
He plays Cardinal Giovanni Benelli, who was instrumental in getting John Paul I elected after the 15-year reign of his predecessor, the indecisive Pope Paul VI. The first third introduces us to the suspicious characters of the Curia, the Vatican's administrative body, who had gained in influence in Paul VI's reign, making ethically questionable economic investments and pushing through conservative ideas that would undo more progressive measures suggested by 1962's Second Vatican Council.
None of this is very dramatic, and the actors playing the cardinals are mostly white and in their 50s or 60s, their characters sporting such similar-sounding names that it's hard to tell them apart.
The play picks up once Cardinal Albino Luciani (Richard O'Callaghan) is elected pope and begins trying to implement liberal ideas about birth control, international conflict resolution and cleaning up the Curia. He's soon found dead. Why was there no autopsy? Cue Poirot - er, Benelli - and his interrogation scene.
Crane's script mines rich themes like corruption, pride and ambition, and gets an extra jolt from dealing with facts. But it lacks a solid structure and ends up feeling like an awkward patchwork of genres, including religious history and detective story.
The performances are fine. O'Callaghan is particularly good as the empathetic, modest John Paul I, and his coronation scene is among the play's most moving. And Suchet has some powerful moments in the final scenes.
William Dudley's sets are serviceable and likely easy to move (this is the first leg of an international tour), and Dominic Muldowney's music tries to add bits of drama that are missing in the script.