The Last Confession couldn't be more timely: A new pope shakes up the old guard with his insistence on humble living, refusing to hold a papal coronation or employ the traditional royal “we.” He even hints at an openness toward birth control.

But the play, at the Ahmanson through July 6, isn't about Pope Francis – its British premiere predates the Argentinian's selection by six years. Its subject is Pope John Paul I, “the Smiling Pope,” who held the job for just 33 days in 1978 before dying of a heart attack. Or did he? Old-timers at the Vatican weren't pleased with their new pontiff's populist style; might they have had him murdered?]
Despite that setup, Roger Crane's play focuses less on conspiracy theories and more on the difficulties of reform. “Churches aren't run by saints,” one character observes. “They're run by men who understand power.” It's a smart script by a first-time playwright who clearly knows both church history and how to keep a story moving.

But the best reason to see this production is its cast, led by the brilliant British actor David Suchet, who plays Cardinal Giovanni Benelli, a reformer troubled by John Paul's untimely end. The actors are universally excellent, particularly Richard O'Callaghan as the doomed pope. (Like Suchet, O'Callaghan created his role in the 2007 U.K. premiere.) Endearing, humble and faced with a den of vipers in cardinal-red cloaks, O'Callaghan's John Paul doesn't have a chance.

Our own Pope Francis, one suspects after watching this smartly observed play, understands power a bit more than admirers would want to admit.

Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn.; through July 6. (213) 628-2772,

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