The best advice about seeing The Inheritance on Broadway — which you definitely should if you’re looking for a head-spinning, heart-rending theatrical experience — is to forget the hype surrounding it. And that won’t be easy. Playwright Matthew Lopez, a Puerto Rican transplanted to New York City from the Florida panhandle, is fresh from London where his ardently ambitious play about different generations of gay men living in post-AIDs Manhattan won an armful of Oliviers (the Brit Tonys named after the late, great Lord Larry) and gushy reviews that called it “the most important American play of the century.” Try living up to that. You can’t, but it’s impossible not to marvel at the incisively hilarious and deeply humane effort put forth by Lopez, director Stephen Daldry (The Crown, Billy Elliot), and a cast that could not be better. The Inheritance is an emotional powerhouse. It’s also approximately seven hours long. That means you have to see it in two parts (the . Another gay fantasia, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, pulled it off, but unless you’re J.K. Rowling’s pre-sold Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, you’re fighting an uphill battle.
Talk about the weight of expectation. The Inheritance lacks the bold originality and soaring poetic reach of Kushner’s masterpiece. Lopez lets his ideas spill over onstage, shifting into dramatic detours as if his damned-up passions could not be contained. The Inheritance may be unwieldy, repetitive, and all over the place, but it’s gripping from first scene to last.
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This brings up another shadow besides Kushner’s that Lopez has to stand in. That would be closeted author E.M. Forster, whose landmark 1910 novel Howards End detailed class warfare in Edwardian England. Lopez uses Howards End as a blueprint for the social and sexual mores that permeate modern Manhattan. Where Forster kept his forbidden desire under wraps, Lopez makes sure his play pulses with eroticism.
The Inheritance isn’t just patterned after Forster’s Howards End, it actually puts Forster center stage. Paul Hilton plays him as a professor instructing in the writing of the play, using the novel’s iconic words “only connect” as a touchstone. There are scenes where Forster will interrupt the action to make a character say what he’s really feeling or to reflect in the third person on his inner life in the manner of a novel. Academic? For sure. Distracting? Sometimes. But mostly the device catches us up in the creative struggle to transform life into art. Daldry directs immersively on a bare stage with the men bragging about their sexual exploits, trading comic barbs (one involving Meryl Streep), miming sex in pairs and groups, railing against the co-opting of gay culture, and debating how their hard-won gains in marriage and social equality are now in jeopardy in the age of Trump.
Both novel and play pivot around property. Howards End is a country farm house left in a controversial bequest from a tycoon’s wife to her bohemian friend Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson won an Oscar for playing Margaret in the 1992 Merchant-Ivory film version). For Lopez, the Margaret character is Eric Glass, beautifully played by the London-based, American actor Kyle Soller. Eric is a compassionate lawyer who lives in a rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side with his boyfriend, Toby Darling (an electrifying Andrew Burnap). Toby, a narcissist fueled by his tormented childhood, is promiscuous and obsessed with Adam (a terrific Samuel H. Levine), the star of the play Toby has adapted from his debut novel and is attempting to take to Broadway. When Adam rejects him, Toby finds Leo (also played by the sensational Levine), a lookalike rent boy on whom he can play out his often cruel fantasies. Leo’s poverty and desperation become crucial to the point Lopez, following Forster, makes about the haves and have-nots in an increasingly uncaring society. Eric, on the other hand, is steadfast, relating sympathetically to Walter Poole, a physically fragile older man (also played by the brilliant Hilton).
In a deathbed note, Walter leaves Eric a rundown house in upstate New York, dominated by a garden and a large cherry tree. The house, a three-hour drive from Manhattan, is the place where Walter once tended to men afflicted by AIDs. Shockingly, the note is burned by Walter’s longtime companion Henry Wilcox, a billionaire real estate developer (played with energy and wit by the superb John Benjamin Hickey). Lopez refuses to reduce Henry — a Republican and unapologetic Trump donor — to a conventional villain. In a lively debate with Eric and his friends, Henry conveys a brutal lesson in economics that clashes with Eric and his liberal-progressive group. Is the fact that the older characters wear shoes while the young men are always barefoot meant to convey naïveté, innocence, or something more primal? You be the judge. But Lopez is raw and riveting in the way he lays out the conflict between younger men with no direct experience of the AIDs crisis and those who lived it. The gay men who didn’t survive are also a ghostly presence in a play that speaks with ferocity and feeling about the responsibility the present has to the past: to live, with purpose, when the dead cannot.
How Eric finds his path to the country house that is his true inheritance — just as Margaret does to Howards End — is the crux of the play. Crowded with incident and characters — the great Lois Smith (the only woman in the cast) appears late in the proceedings as the regretful mother of an afflicted son she once spurned — The Inheritance seems at times to fly off the rails into borrowed inspiration, issue-mongering, flagrant didacticism and dramatic incoherence. But its soul-stirring sincerity is never in question. Forster saw Howards End as a symbol of a lost England, not one riven by class strife, but one in close touch with its responsibility to nurture. Lopez sees Eric’s country-house inheritance, whose beauty is amplified by the living and the spirits of the dead, as an urgent reminder of Forster’s plea to only connect. And the struggle to do just that as an individual and as a community is what Lopez makes thrillingly alive in The Inheritance. Make no mistake, it’ll take a piece out of you.
The Inheritance at the Barrymore Theatre: 4/5 Stars