Most Broadway seasons feature at least one show that gathers an aura of importance even before it opens. This year it is undoubtedly “The Inheritance,” Matthew Lopez’s two-part, nearly seven-hour drama about a generation of contemporary gay men searching for love, pleasure, happiness — and a sense of purpose — with all the turbulence the process involves.
The play arrives on a mighty gust of superlative reviews from its premiere in London. Such towering expectations can bring their own peril, with skeptical eyebrows ready to be raised: Can it really be that good?
The blissful answer is yes. A mighty, shout-it-from-the-rooftop-bars yes. Naturally, any play of such ambition, expansiveness and sheer length will have some imperfections. But there’s no question that “The Inheritance,” which is often explosively funny and more often piercingly moving, is a major work of contemporary theater, the rare play that matches its breathtaking imaginative breadth with equal measures of dramatic ingenuity and electrifying emotional power.
The work of the director, Stephen Daldry, and the ample cast are equally impressive. Daldry frames the play with a simplicity that clarifies and complements its complex structure, using minimal sets (by the veteran Bob Crowley) and bringing an almost ritual-like sparseness to the staging.
The actors, when they are not in a scene, often sit at the side of the platform on which the action mostly unfolds, providing copious description and narration — perhaps more than enough. But “The Inheritance” almost establishes a new genre unto itself: It’s an intricately textured admixture of drama and novel that draws on both the fluid lyricism of prose and the crispness of smart, lively dialogue.
The combination is apt, since it takes direct inspiration from E.M. Forster’s “Howards End.” Forster himself, called Morgan, plays a significant role as a narrator and spiritual adviser. In the opening scene he wanders into a sort of phantasmal Starbucks populated exclusively by aspiring gay writers. While most express admiration for “Howards End,” one says dismissively, “Our lives are nothing like the people in your book.” Forster, played with a deliciously gentle sense of gentility by Paul Hilton, demurs: “How can that be true? Hearts still love, don’t they? And break … The difference is merely setting, context, costumes.”
And so Lopez, with beautiful bravado, sets out to prove precisely how the verities of life do indeed remain stable, by using Forster’s plot as a template for a play about characters seemingly as different from Forster’s own as chalk is from cheese, to borrow a British colloquialism.
It isn’t necessary to have even a glancing acquaintance with Forster’s novel to take thorough pleasure in “The Inheritance.” Having recently reread the book I could admire the ingenious manner in which Lopez finds parallel characters and repurposes specific plot twists, but I could also see curves coming, and sometimes wished I couldn’t.
The plot largely focuses on the relationship between the partnered Toby Darling (Andrew Burnap) and Eric Glass (Kyle Soller), two ambitious “strivers,” full of the heady energy of being young(ish) in New York and not yet aware that the city, despite its glittering promise, can dispense pain as liberally as it does pleasure. In the early scenes we are invited into the jovial party that is their lives — an exclusively gay gathering, and a mostly white one, too. (Although their social circle involves more than one character of color, the black doctor Tristan, played by Jordan Barbour, is the only substantially drawn one, and even he remains tangential.)
Toby has already had a savory taste of success: He has published a novel that he has been commissioned to adapt into a play aiming for Broadway. Eric is working for a friend’s social-justice company. In a twist that echoes one in “Howards End,” Toby and Eric meet an even younger gay man, Adam (Samuel H. Levine), when Toby accidentally picks up Adam’s bag of books at the Strand. Adam is an aspiring actor who, in a forgivable bit of contrivance, will end up starring in Toby’s play — and who will play a part in the evolving nature of their relationship.
Meanwhile, a couple of another generation, a good two decades older than the rest, gradually moves into the picture: Henry Wilcox (a casually magnetic John Benjamin Hickey), a billionaire real estate developer (but not evil — really!), and his partner Walter Poole (also played by Hilton, with a variety of gentleness that is admirably distinct from his Forster’s).
Walter and Eric’s friendship seems to be the most natural: They are similarly large-spirited and embracing, and their bond deepens when Walter opens up to Eric about his 36 years with Henry. But ultimately it will be the relationship that Eric strikes up with Henry that ripens in unexpected and life-changing ways. (And occasionally through some slightly trite dialogue, as when Henry tells Eric: “You’ve reminded me what it’s like to be hopeful, to respond to life with excitement and wonder.” Also: “You make me smile.”)
Meanwhile — well, never mind. The plot of “The Inheritance” could, and probably will, fill out at least a season of a binge-worthy television series. And, with its turbulent romantic and sexual complications, Lopez’s narrative sometime verges on the sudsiness of a soap opera. But strip away the artist’s voice from most enduring works of fiction, and you will find the same building blocks being used: the falling in and out of love, the specter and awful inevitability of death and loss, the working out of human destinies in the context of their particular times, circumstances and class. Even the more surprising twists, which might strike some as melodramatic, are drawn directly from Forster’s masterpiece.
Among the most rewarding dimensions of the play is its exploration of how the shadow of the AIDS epidemic, now decades in the past and, for most of the young characters, more a dim legend of horror than anything else, does and does not affect their lives. The play illuminates, a little sadly, how generations of gay men often sequester themselves in circles of similarity — and in doing so cut themselves off from the wisdom of their elders.
For it is through his friendship with Walter that Eric learns how deeply the AIDS epidemic blighted (if not ended) the lives of generations of gay men. In the stunning last moments of the first part, this dark past briefly impinges on the present. It’s a moment too rending to describe (perhaps an homage to the pioneering AIDS-era movie “Longtime Companion”), but I can say that it brings Eric into a spiritual recognition of the immense tragedy of the AIDS epidemic.
I could have used a little less granular detail in the discussions and depictions of gay sex. And a discussion inspired by Eric’s question — “What does it mean now to be a gay man?” — has a slightly pasted-on quality, as if an academic symposium about the merits of assimilation and the appropriation of gay culture has been spliced into an episode of “Queer as Folk.” A similar digression in part two finds Henry arguing that it was the market — specifically drug companies — that deserves the most credit for helping to curb the AIDS epidemic, which naturally gets fiery pushback and eventually involves a debate about income inequality.
But while you might take issue with one or another aspect of the play — some will find those dry bits too talky, extraneous or obvious, others will find them stimulating; some will find the soapy bits too soapy, while others will be moved to tears — “The Inheritance” as a whole reverberates with the richness and complexity of life, indeed seems to grow and breathe like a living organism itself. Threaded throughout is the idea, echoing Forster, that human beings are mysteriously assorted creatures who change and evolve with the turns their lives take — some for the better, others less so — and that, despite the vast differences in philosophies between any given two people, surprising connections can be forged, and sundered, too. (The urge to “only connect” is of course the most famous quote from Forster’s novel.)
All three actors in the lead roles give nuanced, moving performances: Soller as the loving but insecure Eric; Burnap as the seemingly confident Toby, who doesn’t realize how deeply damaged he is; and Levine as the (comparatively) colorless Adam, but also in the richer role of Adam’s look-alike, Leo, a desperately poor young man whose dark odyssey unfolds in the second part.
And the estimable Lois Smith, as the caretaker of the country house that is central to the plot (the equivalent of the titular estate in Forster’s novel), is heartrendingly moving in a late scene in which she describes, with tenderness but a dry-eyed clarity, her conflicted relationship with a gay son. (Really, this scene alone is worth the time and money required to see the play.)
The title resonates in almost innumerable ways. It has a literal meaning, referring to that house. It is evoked in the play’s exploration of how legacies of neglect or abuse from parents can blight the lives of children. But it also refers to the legacies handed down between generations of gay men — including the virus that has destroyed so many lives, but also the freedoms and self-acceptance that have blossomed from one generation to the next.
In one scene Leo speaks of New York City as “shimmering” before him. The word stuck with me, because Lopez’s multifaceted play, with its richness of meaning, emotional coloring and effect, has a similar glinting resonance in the memory, as of a gem that catches light and reflects it in various hues. “The Inheritance” itself a shining achievement that will surely continue to spread forth its light for generations to come.
“The Inheritance” opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Nov. 17, 2019.
Producers: Tom Kirdahy, Sonia Friedman Productions, Hunter Arnold, Elizabeth Dewberry & Ali Ahmet Kocabiyik, 1001 Nights Productions, Robert Greenblatt, Mark Lee,Peter May, Scott Rudin, Richard Winkler, Bruce Cohen, Mara Isaacs, Greg Berlanti & Robbie Rogers, Brad Blume, Burnt Umber Productions, Shane Ewen, Greenleaf Productions, Marguerite Hoffman, Oliver Roth, Joseph Baker/Drew Hodges, Stephanie P. McClelland, Broadway Strategic Return Fund, Caiola Productions, Mary J. Davis, Kayla Greenspan, Fakston Productions, FBK Productions, Sally Cade Holmes, MWM Live, Lee & Alec Seymour, Lorenzo Thione, Sing Out, Louise! Productions, AB Productions/Julie Boardman, Adam Zell & Co./ZKM Media, Jamie deRoy/Catherine Adler, DeSantis-Baugh Productions/Adam Hyndman, Gary DiMauro/Meredith Lynsey Schade, John Goldwyn/Silva Theatrical Group, Deborah Green/Christina Mattsson, Cliff Hopkins/George Scarles, Invisible Wall Productions/Lauren Stein, Sharon Karmazin/Broadway Factor NYC, Brian Spector/Madeleine Foster Bersin, Undivided Productions/Hysell Dohr Group, UshkowitzLatimer Productions/Tyler Mount and The Young Vic.
Creative: Written by Matthew Lopez; Inspired by the novel “Howards End” by E. M. Forster; Original Music by Paul Englishby; Directed by Stephen Daldry; Scenic Design by Bob Crowley; Costume Design by Bob Crowley; Lighting Design by Jon Clark; Sound Design by Paul Arditti and Christopher Reid.
Cast: Jordan Barbour, Ryan M. Buggle, Jonathan Burke, Andrew Burnap, Darryl Gene Daughtry Jr., Dylan Frederick, Kyle Harris, John Benjamin Hickey, Paul Hilton, Samuel H. Levine, Carson McCalley, Tre Ryder, Lois Smith, Kyle Soller and Arturo Luís Soria.