It’s a play that grapples with what it means to be a twenty-first century queer man in New York City after the peak of the AIDS epidemic. It’s an updated, reimagined, gay-millenial stage version of the 1910 E.M. Forster novel, Howards End. It’s a long one, with a run time of around seven hours, split between two parts, which in this way also bears the obvious comparison to Tony Kushner’s 1991 Angels in America. As writer Matthew Lopez’s Broadway premiere and director Stephen Daldry’s sixth, The Inheritance is witty, a bit soapy, but an ultimately timely look at the current state of gayness.
Composed as a narrative within a narrative, Forster himself (perfectly embodied by Paul Hilton) appears before a group of thirty-something year old gay men as an almost omnipresent narrator in order to help construct the story, which is roughly Howards End, as it happens onstage. The subsequent narrative is told through the chorus of men whom Forster acualizes in front of, meaning that, give or take, each actor plays two characters. As the audience witnesses the metropolitan queer love story unfold before them between the charmingly ordinary activist Eric Glass (brilliantly performed by Kyle Stoller) and his long-time partner, the troubled writer, Toby Darling (wonderfully rendered by Andrew Burnap), so do the original group of characters.
The year is 2016, and the couple resides in Eric’s grandmother’s rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side which is, unbeknownst to Toby, soon to be lost to eviction. While Toby is travelling around with Adam, the younger, naive, and handsome star of the theater adaptation of his novel (played by the sometimes stiff but somehow convincing Samuel H. Levine), Eric is left in New York with the knowledge that he’ll soon have to vacate his childhood home. In his isolation and guilt for not having told Toby about the apartment’s impending doom, Eric befriends their upstairs neighbor, the older and richer Walter Poole (Hilton again, this time no british accent, though I’m pretty sure I heard him slip a few times).
The power of stories, the need for storytelling, and the social imperative for an active remembrance of history is what The Inheritance strives, and mostly succeeds, to get at.
The most crucial scene to this point is the dialogue shared by Eric and Walter over a few whiskeys after the saddened Eric invites him to his apartment for a drink. The tale, which Walter tells a teary-eyed Eric, is of his country home upstate, where he would take people infected with HIV to comfort as they passed. Both Stoller and Hilton are at their best in this deeply affecting and poignant convergence of generations–one which bore the brunt of the AIDS epidemic, and the other which lives in its wake.
Soft sniffles and the sounds of hands rummaging around for a kleenex acts as a kind of score as the scene tugs and tugs (and tugs) for tears from the audience. But it does so, and without totally tipping into the valley of soapy sap.
As Toby’s fame grows, the relationship diminishes. Interspersed between the often emotional plot development, are wildly entertaining group conversations, one of which is, of course, over brunch. Another is the 2016 election, where half the country was oh-so-sure of Trump’s defeat, as were the characters. The friend group (who’re played by the chorus of men who Forster first comes to) is a dynamic set of professional, super educated, hilarious gays–the type I swipe right on but know I wont match with. While the chorus almost never leaves the subtlety inimitable minimalist set by the seven-time tony award winning Bob Crowley, they often sit back and watch, make faces or yell-out, like a rowdy but helpful audience.
Central to these conversations, and to the play itself, is the question of what–or who–have we forgotten during our marriage equality-achieved, PrEP-ready, Rupaul’s Drag Race-fueled, straight-suburban-white-girls-screaming “yas queen” era since AIDS ravaged the country? This, and other prescient questions, are what Lopez prompts his characters and viewers with.
One major gripe that won’t stop bugging me, however, is the aesthetic treatment and characterization of Leo (also played by Levine), a sexworker, as well as the one and only not upper-middle class or higher character. Scene: A penthouse in Hell’s Kitchen, Leo comes onto the stage clad in baggy, ill-fitted clothing, hood up, and downtrodden. Forster tells the audience that poor Leo had never seen such great heights (or something to that effect), and it is then insinuated that Leo has just transmitted HIV to the person that he slept with (no spoilers).
Why perpetuate the notion that people with HIV today are “dirty?” Why depict sexworkers as dirty? More research, more care, and more nuance to this character of Leo would have added a dimension to the play that is sorely missing from conversations about sex in general–that is–that a lot of people genuinely enjoy fucking for money. How that was lost on Lopez, I’m hard pressed to find out.
Despite the sexworker slip up, the four and a half hour long part 1 of the Inheritance grips and holds fast. That the degree of separation between the audience and the events happening on stage is doubled actually reinforces the weightedness of both narratives. And, at its most clever, the narratives start to bleed together, which is where the unfolding in-real-time concept becomes the most enticing. That, as well as the near perfect performances from each actor, is what sets it apart from most theater.