The voice calls across generations.
Matthew Lopez first heard it at 16 while watching a movie in his Florida Panhandle hometown. Years would pass before he fully understood the subtext he was picking up from the British period drama “Howards End,” but the message embedded itself and grew into a two-part, 6½-hour play, “The Inheritance,” one of the most buzzed-about shows of Broadway’s fall season.
“What I was responding to was a connection with another gay man through his writing.”
Somehow, he had sensed E.M. Forster in the story — perhaps in its social conscience or its humor, for there is nothing overtly gay about the movie or Forster’s 1910 novel on which it is based. Regardless, “I saw a version of myself that I could recognize even at 16.
“E.M. Forster taught me that I was not alone.”
Hard as it might be to discern, “Howards End,” with its disorderly, class-crossing romances in Edwardian England, is Lopez’s blueprint for “The Inheritance.”
“I wanted to queer it and write something that Forster himself might have wanted to write, had he been allowed to,” Lopez, 42, said by phone from his apartment in Brooklyn before rushing off to a rehearsal.
Characters and plot points have equivalents in the play, but he has stretched into new themes in a wholly different milieu: a circle of glitteringly witty, chummily affectionate, gay New Yorkers. As friendships and romances begin to cross generational lines, millennials find themselves mentoring Gen Z’ers, and the post-Stonewall/AIDS generation bestows its hard-won knowledge on both.
Within this framework, Lopez shares his life story.
“I am telling my experience as a gay man born in 1977: the life that I’ve lived, the men I have known, the friends I have lost, the hopes that I have, the fears that I’ve grappled with, the shame that I’ve grappled with.”
Forster is a character in the tale, circulating among the men as a spiritual godfather. It’s an homage from one misfit to another.
Puerto Rican on his father’s side and Polish-Russian on his mother’s, Lopez was isolated from his heritage in Panama City, Fla., which was mostly white or African American. His nascent attraction to boys also made him different.
The English Forster — born in 1879, a century before Lopez — hid his sexuality, as his times demanded. So although he was celebrated for such works as “A Room With a View” and “Howards End,” he dared not try to publish his most impassioned novel, “Maurice,” at the center of which he placed a resilient, well-adjusted man who happens to love men. By the time “Maurice” was published in 1971, the year after his death, attitudes toward same-sex attraction were rapidly changing.
Lopez inherited that transformed world, and that’s the crux of the play that has sent him rocketing.
“Everybody’s life is the result of another person’s life,” he said. “Any person is the recipient of the sacrifices of those who came before.”
Word spreads quickly
Although “The Inheritance” doesn’t open at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre until Nov. 17, its ripples have already reached Los Angeles. Word of mouth spread from London, where the play was introduced at the Young Vic in early 2018 because its English director, Stephen Daldry (“Billy Elliot,” “The Crown”), wanted to fine-tune it near home. The show proceeded to the city’s West End last fall, winning top British theater awards including the Olivier for best new play. Drawn by the buildup, Angelenos have been trekking to New York during the show’s month and a half of previews, posting reactions on social media.
Before this, Lopez was best known for “The Whipping Man” and “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” which, along with his play “Somewhere,” have been prominently produced in Southern California, including San Diego’s Old Globe and L.A.'s Geffen Playhouse.
On his personal list of trailblazers, Lopez traces a line back through gay poets Walt Whitman and Edward Carpenter, who influenced Forster. He lists authors who’ve moved him, from James Baldwin to Alison Bechdel. And he includes Ellen DeGeneres, whose coming out gave him an example of how to live openly.
His fascination with theater stretches back to boyhood. Priscilla Lopez, the original Diana Morales in “A Chorus Line,” is an aunt. He was taken to see her in “A Day in Hollywood / A Night in the Ukraine,” and his ensuing fascination with the craft — he originally aimed to be an actor — propelled him through the University of South Florida and on to New York.
As an eager newcomer in New York, he got hold of a list of producers and agents and mailed off requests for advice or work of any kind. “I sent maybe 120 letters out,” Lopez recalled. “I heard back from one person, and that person was Hal Prince.”
The director-producer, who was instrumental in such shows as “Cabaret” and a string of Stephen Sondheim’s greatest works, gave Lopez three more names. One was Terrence McNally, who happened to have a musical, “A Man of No Importance,” in development and invited Lopez to work as an assistant.
In retrospect, the pairing couldn’t have been more felicitous, because McNally’s plays about the gay experience — especially “Love! Valour! Compassion! — trailblazed for “The Inheritance.”
McNally agreed to read one of Lopez’s early plays and told him: You are a playwright.
The admiration continues. “The Inheritance,” McNally said by email, “left me shaken to the core. ... He is the real thing: a writer who thinks in scenes, not snippets, and is not afraid of big language and big speeches.
“I think Matthew’s future is infinite.”
Tom Kirdahy, a “Hadestown” Tony winner who is a lead producer of “The Inheritance,” felt an immediate connection with the script. He’s McNally’s husband but said he was gung-ho before he became aware of the depth of the writers’ regard for each other. The piece “was a bull’s-eye to my heart,” he said. “I thought it was telling my story, as well as a universal story of friendship and love and generational responsibility.”
The theater world seems to agree. “We are being approached by theaters throughout the country,” Kirdahy said, “and theaters all over the world.”
The universal in the specific
Lopez knew from the beginning that he wanted to speak across generational lines.
He began by listening. After he got a 2012 commission to write the play from Hartford Stage, he and Elizabeth Williamson, who heads the Connecticut institution’s play development program, gathered half a dozen men, representing different generations of gay experience, and asked them to talk about issues and events of significance to each group. In the end, the participants wished more such conversations were happening every day — sharing history, learning from one another.
So “The Inheritance” has become, in essence, a conversation, and as in life, it is interrupted by AIDS. Lopez wraps this into his story, which unfolds from 2015 to the present, by depicting a deepening friendship between one of the central characters, in his early 30s, and an older man who cared for countless friends — and strangers — in their final days.
That lost generation pushed back against police raids, worked toward legislative and social change, and dared to live openly. These were, in Kirdahy’s words, “brave souls who took risks, who took a chance on loving truthfully,” and the loss of so many of them robbed the next generation of the mentorship and insight that they might have provided. The closing moments of Part 1 make this loss so palpable that theatergoers head out the doors struggling to staunch their tears.
The story centers on a gregarious late 20s-early 30s couple, Eric Glass and Toby Darling, whose gatherings foster lively conversations among a cross-section of gay men. Relationships, parenting, politics, history, books, music, the aesthetics of camp — these are just a few of the topics that get the group’s blood pumping.
“I put all my worst qualities into Toby and I put all my best qualities into Eric,” said Lopez, who has worked hard to find balance. He’s been sober for nine years, and he’s been with his husband, whom he credits as one of the great sources of good in his life, for nearly 15. “I’ve taken the two sides of myself and allowed them to do battle royal for six and a half hours onstage.”
Eric digs deep into human nature, trying to better understand it, and he strives to improve the world in whatever ways he can. The novel’s famous directive — “Only connect!” — is embedded in him.
Toby, though, is the character toward whom the audience initially gravitates. He’s funny and flirtatious — a klieg light of energy — but beneath the ebullience he is deeply wounded, deadening the pain with booze and drugs.
“Toby holds a lot of my damage,” Lopez said. “If I hadn’t gotten sober, my life might have looked a little like Toby.”
The character is embodied by Andrew Burnap, who played the title role in “The Legend of Georgia McBride” at the Geffen Playhouse 2½ years ago. The 14-member cast features a lot of young talent like Burnap, who is 28, with some gravitas in the mix due to the presence of veterans John Benjamin Hickey (who was part of the original company of “Love! Valour! Compassion!”) and film and television actress Lois Smith (“East of Eden,” “Marjorie Prime”), the only woman.
For Burnap, “The Inheritance” is about choices: “Your life can be better, your life can be more profound, you can be more connected to your fellow human.” Many of the characters are able to do so, and although Toby has a rougher time, Burnap stays focused on his positive qualities, especially “a sort of devilish, boyish charm” that Lopez and Toby share.
In all ways, the story keeps circling back to the idea of sharing stories.
“The story that I laid out isn’t definitive, it isn’t complete,” Lopez said. “It’s simply my story. If the play is a success it will be a success because it creates in people the desire to tell their story as well.”
And to listen. “It is the responsibility of the generation that comes after — in any group, in any culture, in any community — to understand why they got there, how they got there, and what their responsibility is to the people who come after them,” Lopez said.
“If we are lucky, our lives will in some way impact the lives of people to come.”