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TORONTO – Angels and demons of Vatican politics collide in the powerfully executed mystery that is “The Last Confession.” Told through the eyes of Cardinal Giovanni Benelli, who almost became pope himself, it is the story of the death of Pope John Paul I – sudden, unexplained and never truly investigated.

This spring, when the world has the rare confluence of two living popes and two popes newly sainted, the show now playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre gains an added layer of relevancy, and even intrigue.

As we watch and start to wonder if John Paul experienced a natural death, or something more sinister, the mind also considers more recent Vatican changes. Why did Benedict really resign, and will a church hierarchy that rejected the first John Paul embrace a similarly humble Francis I?

What makes the play so gripping is that most of the world never really knows what goes on in the rooms around the celestial marbles of St. Peter’s Square. Playwright Roger Crane wants us to find out.

In creating his vivid historical fiction, Crane, who is a lawyer, decided against giving his audience the Hollywood version with clever contrivances, manufactured conflict and fictional cliffhangers. This “Confession” is firmly rooted in messy reality, or what that reality might have been. As a result, the play, admittedly wordy and at times bureaucratic, is one that requires attention, even concentration from those in the seats.

The reward is rich. David Suchet, the British actor famous for playing Hercule Poirot in dozens of Agatha Christie mysteries, is the star attraction in the show, but it is truly an ensemble success, with each of its 20 cast members bringing richness to his, and in one case her, role to match the import of the events they are portraying.

A three-pope play, the show begins with a dying Benelli wanting to make his confession about how the humble Cardinal Albino Luciani (Richard O’Callaghan) was pushed into accepting the papacy, and how 33 days into his reign, he was found dead in his bed. At the time, the Vatican said this man who had been declared in good health only a few months earlier had died from a heart attack, although there was no evidence of distress and no autopsy was performed.

We flash back with Suchet and his unidentified confessor to the Vatican of the late 1970s, with Pope Paul VI (Donald Douglas, suitably severe) looking ahead to the future of the church as his own life is ending. The cardinals debate and bicker over irregularities in the Vatican bank and changes in canon law while Benelli positions for control over the inevitable upcoming papal conclave.

Crane knows that dramatic dialogue benefits when a little humor adds counterpoint, and gives just enough moments. When the future pope Luciani explains his theology – “God has given me the questions, he will help me find the answers,” Paul VI responds dryly, “You would make a good Lutheran.”

The first act runs long, allowing the second act, encompassing John Paul’s brief tenure, to have a rush of urgency to it. Benelli, tormented by personal conflicts of faith and ambition, now has guilt to cope with, too. It brings out the best in him, and also his weaknesses. In the end, he has to choose who to serve – himself, the church or God.

The script comes packed with Roman Catholic minutia but is easily understood by non-Catholics. The biggest challenge may be for those hoping to see the curious Belgian detective. As a prince of the church, Suchet makes good use of his little gray cells, but otherwise Poirot has disappeared under the red robes of the cardinal.

theater review

4 stars

What: “The Last Confession”

Where: Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King St. W., Toronto

When: Through June 1

Tickets: $35-$119

Info: (800) 461-3333, www.mirvish.com

email: mmiller@buffnews.com