“Only connect!” E.M. Forster preached in his irreplaceable 1910 novel “Howards End.” More than a century later, Matthew Lopez — an American playwright whose magnum opus, “The Inheritance,” has arrived on Broadway after conquering London — has found inspiration in this simple gospel.
Borrowing the framework of Forster’s tale, Lopez relocates the action to contemporary New York to explore the lives of an intergenerational group of gay men. A two-part drama that runs 6½ hours, “The Inheritance,” which had its official opening Sunday at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, can’t help being compared to Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.”
The similarities are as unmistakable as the differences. While Kushner’s epic is set in the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic, Lopez’s drama takes place in that fuzzier period closer to the present, a time when AIDS drugs and PrEP have made sex no longer synonymous with death. The plague days are recounted by those whose survived them, but for a younger generation, this is history, not traumatic memory.
“The Inheritance” has the luxury of focusing on the difficult business of living. Politics is unavoidable. New York housing is impossibly expensive, gays (particularly those with intersectional identities) are still the target of discrimination, and Hillary Clinton, in a scene that is agonizing to relive, will suffer a shocking defeat in the 2016 presidential election.
Lopez takes in all this data as his characters debate a full docket of LGBTQ issues, everything from the loss of gay bar culture in an age of hookup apps to the disturbingly high incidence of HIV among African American gay men. But his drama is more attuned to the vicissitudes of private life. Characters find sustenance in community, but their struggles are largely relationship- and career-oriented.
In other words, the stuff of comedy. Lopez leans into the humor with finger-snapping repartee. If Forster and Kushner are driving the play’s ambition, Terrence McNally is greenlighting the laugh lines that accompany the tender pathos.
In the prologue, Morgan (Paul Hilton), the author of “Howards End” (who casually goes by his middle name), enters as the literary spirit presiding over the play. He encourages a group of men scribbling in their notebooks to release their stories into the world. After one young man tentatively describes what he’s writing, Morgan replies, “Goodness me. Friendship, love, loss. Sounds like you’re off to a very good start.”
This narrative of friendship, love and loss is the one that will be unfolding onstage. Encompassing multiple buildups, digressions, climaxes and codas, the marathon yarn will proceed on dual tracks. “The Inheritance” is a drama that regularly interrupts itself to become a novel, filling in the time gaps, making the unseen visible and commenting on the characters and their occasionally inexplicable behavior.
The play is self-reflexive, and this production from London’s Young Vic, vibrantly directed by Stephen Daldry, embraces the meta structure with an open theatricality that has the actors switching among characters and remaining on the stage’s perimeter to observe and annotate scenes they are not directly involved in. The brisk and buoyant staging keeps Lopez’s acreage of prose afloat.
Here’s as good a place as any to reveal that while I loved “The Inheritance,” found it thoroughly absorbing and am grateful that it exists on Broadway, I don’t think it’s a dramatic masterpiece. The hybrid form sprawls indulgently, the focus on gay white men (amid a refreshingly multicultural cast) seems questionable, character psychology becomes opaque in the unnecessarily repetitive second half and the sentimentality can sometimes feel manipulative.
Lopez, the author of such regional theater hits as “The Whipping Man” and “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” knows how to work an audience, but this facility sometimes draws him away from deeper truths. His populist instincts pander on occasion. Yet there are moments when the emotion is so genuinely overpowering that the entire audience is stricken into a sobbing unity. At the end of Part 1, a scene concluding with an otherworldly encounter between the present and the mournful gay past, theatergoers trooped up the aisles with dazed expressions, still processing the cathartic relief.
A recap of the unwieldy plot would require a CliffsNotes volume. But the story centers on Eric Glass (Kyle Soller) and Toby Darling (Andrew Burnap), a gay couple of seven years who serve as faint parallels for the Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen, of “Howards End.”
Eric, the steady Margaret-like figure, is a 33-year-old Yale grad who has a vague position working in “social justice.” Toby, who shares Helen’s wildness, is a strikingly handsome writer whose novel “Loved Boy,” a fantasy version of his wrenching childhood, is about to be turned into a play.
Naturally for a work inspired by Forster’s novel, real estate plays a pivotal role. The two men live in Eric’s enviable rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side that was handed down from his grandmother, a refugee from Nazi Germany, who instilled in her grandson a sense of moral purpose. The rent, a mere $575 a month for a rambling Manhattan home, is a dream that’s too good to last. The lease is being contested, and Eric is reluctant to tell Toby the bad news. Instead, he proposes they tie the knot.
The path of Eric and Toby’s story is redirected by other characters. Walter Poole (a role that Hilton plays while still wearing Morgan’s drab Edwardian garb) is the cancer-stricken partner of wealthy real estate developer Henry Wilcox (John Benjamin Hickey). They have moved into Eric and Toby’s building, and Eric strikes up an instant friendship with this dying older man.
Walter seizes center stage during a powerful monologue in which he relives the cascading losses of friends and acquaintances in the 1980s that persuaded him to turn his house in the country into a sanctuary, where gay men dying of AIDS complications could, as another character later puts it, “leave this world with the kind of dignity they had long been denied while living in it.” Recognizing in Eric a spiritual heir, he informally leaves the house to him. But Walter’s wishes are ignored, and Henry and his grasping sons, Charles (Jonathan Burke) and Paul (Kyle Harris), rent out the property.
Meanwhile, Toby, who has been falling in lust with the star of his play during its tryout in Chicago, tells Eric (after learning they have to move out of their home) that he doesn’t want to get married after all. Adam (Samuel H. Levine), a New York scion who adopts a mask of vulnerable innocence to divert attention from his privilege and ambition, is all Toby can think about, and this guileful young actor exploits the infatuation to further his own career, leaving Toby with mixed reviews for his Broadway play, a busted relationship and a burgeoning drug problem.
“The Inheritance” becomes consumed with Toby’s connection with a young, strung-out hustler named Leo (also played by Levine), who’s a dead ringer for Adam, and Eric’s budding relationship with Henry, who has his own baggage. The rustic manor, visually represented by a dollhouse glowing magically on designer Bob Crowley’s clean platform set, is not just Eric’s future home but also the site of meaning in a play suffused with longings for rootedness, connection and historical communion. This is a gay drama, but when Lois Smith eventually makes her entrance in the role Vanessa Redgrave played in London of a mother working as a caretaker at the house to expiate her guilty conscience over her gay son who died there, the dramatic universe expands to include everyone whose heart has been made tender by loss.
Soller, who won an Olivier Award for his performance in the London production, is the emotional anchor of the show. His portrayal of Eric, at once understated and intensely felt, brims with soulfulness without sugarcoating the character’s flaws. It’s easy to see why Hickey’s magnificently fleshed out Henry, a capitalist titan whose grief over Walter has softened some of his gruff edges, is drawn to Eric, who doesn’t share his conservative politics or money-centered worldview. Like Walter, Eric embodies those values that money can attract but never own.
Burnap (who starred in “The Legend of Georgia McBride” at the Geffen Playhouse) dazzles in Part 1 as a flamboyant Peter Pan, but as Toby’s life unravels, the performance strains to break free of the grim monotony. This is a problem that similarly affects Levine once Leo’s life becomes a debauched morass. Burnap’s Toby is a walking exclamation mark who discovers he’s a firecracker and proceeds to light his own fuse. Levine’s Leo, a grungy version of his wily, electric Adam, sulks helplessly.
Toby and Leo decline in interest as drugs scramble their personalities. In a canvas so large, it’s unavoidable that not every character will be fully illuminated. For all its novelistic scope, “The Inheritance” is still a play, and there are only so many gaps in psychology that can be narrated away.
But if dramatic perfection isn’t obtained, something profoundly moving is achieved. Lopez’s epic doesn’t have the intellectual architecture of Kushner’s masterwork. But it has something else, a river of compassionate feeling that seems close in sensibility to McNally’s Tony-winning “Love! Valour! Compassion!”
“The Inheritance” brings gay men into the spotlight in an era in which they’re not facing the same level of crisis of a generation ago but are still fighting for that dignity Walter Poole was determined to provide his dying friends. Lopez may not have Chekhov’s ability to give us laughter through tears, but the laughter and tears he separately provides are humanizing Broadway this fall season.