THE INHERITANCE – Ethel Barrymore Theatre
Matthew Lopez’s THE INHERITANCE, wondrously surmounts - at times, soars above – its sheer scale of two parts in seven hours. Part love story, part literary homage (inspired by E. M. Forster’s “Howard’s End”), part gay rights polemic, and so much more, it’s mostly a storyteller’s story. Playwrights fundamentally, after all is said and done, are storytellers, and that’s how Lopez begins his play. Adam (Samuel H. Levine), one of the dozen gay millenials, one generation removed from the generation that was wiped out by AIDS, laments he wants to write his story but he doesn’t know what to write. Enter E. M. Forster (a fabulous Paul Hilton), under the name Morgan (a moniker used by Forster's closest friends) to advise: before you can tell your story, ask yourself the question “Why do you have to tell your story? “ Therein lies the answer.
And so Lopez launches his characters and audience – on an odyssey that traverses over 100 years, that embraces all aspects of gay culture and history, looping back and forth from the Manhattan – Hamptons- Fire Island gay fast track 2015-2017 to a plague-ravaged New York City of the 1980s, taking detours into politic argument, social criticism and literary discourse. It’s all exhilarating, even when you think it might get stuck up a narrative tributary. Our guide is Walter Poole (again, Paul Hilton). Poole and E. M. Forster being played by the same actor is Lopez’ most brilliant conceit of THE INHERITANCE: it links present and past, historical memory and contemporary reality.
Walter grew up being called fairy in a small Midwestern town. He knew he had to come to New York to escape, to survive. At the age of 19 in 1981 he meets the dashing young millionaire Henry Wilcox (John Benjamin Hickey) at a rooftop cocktail party. The meeting is serendipitous and fortuitous for both. Henry is tired of the closeted, married life, of commuting back home to two young boys and wife at a Westchester estate after a night at the New York baths. Walter and Henry avert the epidemic by retreating to an old Federal-era farm in upstate New York. Walter takes in AIDS victims, turning the property into a hospice. The staid, conservative Henry is repulsed. They remain together for the next thirty years, but emotionally, spiritually really, they go their separate ways.
Their relationship finds its parallel in Eric Glass (Kyle Soller) and Toby Darling (Andrew Burnap). Eric’s slightly older, highly educated and from an established Upper West Side family. He’s supported the younger, sometimes hot-headed Toby who’s authored an ostensibly autobiographical novel “Loved Boy.” Eric wants to settle down, get married, and have kids. Toby goes along, but with the successful adaptation of his book into a play, and his penchant for partying, his descent into sex and drugs comes quickly. Walter befriends Eric and helps him survive the inevitable breakup with Toby. Cautioned Morgan, “To fall in love is to make an appointment with heartbreak.” Toby’s road to drug and sex addiction involves Leo, an HIV + sex worker, (also played by Mr. Levine). In the tradition of great novels, Eric and Toby’s and Walter and Henry’s paths intertwine: the inheritance of “Walter’s house” in upstate New York adopts the same narrative role as the country estate of Howard’s End. (With mirthful nod to childhood innocence, the upstate structure is a doll’s house.)
Lopez’s narrative crisscrossing time has a tragic love story at its core, supported by cultural markers of gay history from the gravitas of events like Stonewall to the most frivolous aspects of gay culture like “musical Monday nights at Splash” (a popular gay bar in Chelsea in the 90s). There’s nothing duplicative about “The Inheritance” - it’s not Kushner’s “Angels in America” millennial redux. Still, it’s spilling over with devotion to theatre and books that have come before, from plays like Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy”, McNally’s “Love! Valour! Compassion!” and Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” and memoirs like Paul Monette’s “On Becoming a Man”, Brad Gooch’s “Smash Cut” and Bill Clegg’s “Portrait of An Addict as a Young Man” (the latter two especially for the harrowing episodes of Toby and Leo’s meth and cocaine addictions.)
The gay cannon that informs “The Inheritance” gets its most explicit thematic dissection, when Morgan talks about “Maurice”, Forster’s novel of two men of different classes in love, that Forster, who did not acknowledge his own sexuality until nearly mid-life, wrote in 1912 but refused to have published until after his death in the early 1970s. Toby accuses Morgan “you might … have saved lives” if you had it published earlier. In a moment of sublime elegance - in a play with so many beautifully composed passages - Morgan responds: “You allow me to see what I could not live.”
Despite the prominence of its central characters, “The Inheritance” is an ensemble piece. Community is its overarching ethos, emphasized in the simplicity of Bob Crowley’s set design, which is essentially an elevated platform around which players sit. (The platform lowers for pool scenes on Fire Island). Lopez, like Forster, acknowledges how background, income and education influence choices, but a century later Lopez lives in a mixed race, multi-ethnic culture: everyone (even Henry Wilcox with his Libertarian brand of Trump-tolerant capitalism) has a seat at this table.
Director Stephen Daldry uses this “community table”, if you will, to most dramatic effect at the conclusion of Part 1. To share the staging would deny theatergoers a rare, transporting moment of theatre. Suffice to say Daldry achieves a Last Supper tableau. It’s the most moving scene that I can recall in years that left even this cynic weeping. (All the while, I knew exactly what and how Daldry achieved what he did. It didn’t matter.)
Part 2 is less successful than Part 1. How could it be more dramatic? The mother of one of the AIDS patients whom Walter took-in upstate, Margaret (a radiant Lois Smith, even in her late 80s), has about a twenty minute monologue that personalizes parents’ dread of having a son that “turned out to be gay” (this mother like all mothers always knew) and then turned victim of the plague. Lopez doesn’t have to remind us that Margaret’s is just one of hundreds of thousands stories like hers. The final scene seems to have several endings, but Lopez finally returns to his original premise at the beginning of Part 1. We tell our stories, Morgan says, to understand what we will become in the future for the “past must be faced, learned from, but it cannot be revised”. It's inherited.