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Matthew Lopez's ambitious two-part drama surveys gay men's legacy of loss.
Broadway review by Adam Feldman
The Inheritance is in many ways a ghost story: It is set among a group of gay men in present-day New York City, but it is animated by spirits of the past. Foremost among them is the English novelist E.M. Forster (the marvelous Paul Hilton), whom Matthew Lopez’s script—like Forster’s friends—calls Morgan. In the prologue, when the play’s characters are fishing for a way to tell their story, Forster appears to them as a plummy, chummy guide. So begins Lopez’s intimate Broadway epic: a searching, expansive and sometimes very moving exploration of love, money, community and memory.
The play is presented in two parts, each more than three hours long. But as directed by Stephen Daldry, who helmed its premiere in London last year, the production mostly goes by fast: With two intermissions in each half, it's not unlike binge-watching six episodes of a Netflix series. Lopez borrows heavily from Forster’s Edwardian novel Howards End for his characters and plot, but shuffles them to suit his purposes. The Schlegel sisters of the novel are recast, grosso modo, as kindhearted otter Eric Glass (a gentle Kyle Soller), soon to be evicted from his rent-controlled apartment, and his extroverted and impetuous boyfriend, Toby Darling (the blazing Andrew Burnap, tossing his hair to fine effect).
Toby is adapting his young-adult book, the aspirationally titled Loved Boy, into a play that might star their new friend Adam (Samuel H. Levine, who doubles as a hard-up teenage hustler named Leo). Also in the larger picture are the well-shod businessman Henry Wilcox (John Benjamin Hickey)—almost the only one onstage who is shod at all, in fact, since the younger men go barefoot—and Henry’s companion of 36 years, the soulful Walter (Hilton again), who owns a house upstate that has served him and others as a refuge.
Lopez covers a wide swath of gay territory in The Inheritance: marriage, open relationships, HIV, politics, party culture and, of course, sex (sometimes explicitly rendered). But at its core is a question that Eric asks himself: “What was the responsibility between gay men from one generation to another?” Howards End digs out a spiritual attachment to old England; in The Inheritance, the roots to be rediscovered are related to gay history. Rarely transmitted by the families of LGBT people themselves—many of the men in this play have childhoods marked by trauma—gay culture is a chain of links to the past. The AIDS epidemic severed many of those links; The Inheritance aims to reforge them.
As Lopez depicts, the rapid expansion of gay rights and the advent of PrEP and combination therapy have changed the landscape for gay men considerably, and have also raised new issues. (“You can’t possibly understand what it’s like to live in freedom, to demand choices for yourself,” says Toby to Forster, who was closeted during his lifetime.) For Henry, sexual freedom is consonant with a libertarian worldview and requires nothing more; his experience of the plague years has dulled him. In one of the play’s best scenes, we watch him work his personal charm—the worldly swagger that sometimes comes with enormous wealth—on Eric’s progressive and multiracial group of friends. But for many in that group, modern queer identity requires a deeper sense of responsibility to other gay people: not just a place at the table but a table of one’s own.
A certain amount of imperfection is built into ambition on this scale. The Inheritance is longer than it needs to be, yet the discussion of modern issues sometimes feels thin; the second part, which departs more freely from the Howards End template, is less assured than the first (despite a welcome late cameo by the formidable Lois Smith), and its framing devices are overfamiliar, especially toward the finale. But at its best, as in the unforgettable sequence that concludes the first half, it taps into a profound sense of loss and a yearning for connection. If progress has come at a cost, The Inheritance is a play about remembering and honoring one’s debts. As such, it feels—to quote one of its characters—like a necessary haunting.
Ethel Barrymore Theatre (Broadway). By Matthew Lopez. Directed by Stephen Daldry. With ensemble cast. Running time: 3hrs 15mins per half. Two intermissions per half.
[Note: Tony Goldwyn steps into the role of Harry Wilcox for a limited time starting January 5, 2020.]