I see a lot of theater — approximately 250 shows a year. They mostly pass without pricking me emotionally, and the ones that do usually provoke anger before any other feeling. So it was a huge surprise to find myself weeping through several passages of The Inheritance, Matthew Lopez's new two-part drama at Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theatre. How did Lopez chip through the icy surface of this critic and release the running water beneath?
My response could stem from narcissism. The Inheritance is about my exact cohort of gay men in New York City: early millennials rapidly approaching the fork in the road that is middle age. The characters remind me of the men in my own life. But judging by the sniffly responses of men and women of all ages, I think there's something more going on — and it's leaving thousands of theatergoers absolutely wrecked.
Inspired by the E.M. Forster novel Howards End, it tells the story of Eric (Kyle Soller) and Toby (Andrew Burnap), long-term boyfriends who live in the rent-controlled Upper West Side apartment Eric inherited from his Jewish immigrant grandmother. Toby is an aspiring playwright, and he becomes enchanted with the world of privilege surrounding billionaire real estate developer Henry Wilcox (John Benjamin Hickey) and his partner, Walter (Paul Hilton). As Toby goes away to open his new play in Chicago, Eric becomes close to the ailing Walter. He learns about the first property Walter and Henry purchased, an upstate house that Walter turned into a hospice for men dying of AIDS during the height of the epidemic. But when Walter leaves that house to Eric in a deathbed request, Henry has to decide if he will honor his partner's last wish.
That's just the main thread of a grand tapestry of gay life between the AIDS crisis and now. The Inheritance invites comparison to Tony Kushner's Angels in America, a similarly epic play that begins with a rabbi reading the names of the surviving grandchildren of an immigrant woman and musing, "Eric? This is a Jewish name?" Like Kushner, Lopez is unafraid to dedicate chunks of this lengthy play (running over six hours, split into two parts) to political debate, often over brunch and fueled by pinot grigio. At one such event, Eric worries that queer culture is being "stripped for parts" as gay people integrate into the larger culture — just as Forster once fretted that all that was distinctly English was fading to grey cosmopolitanism.
Lopez not only borrows themes and plot from Forster, but puts him onstage as a character named Morgan (also Paul Hilton), which is how Forster's friends knew him (and by the end of the play, he feels like an old friend). Morgan's elegant narration gives The Inheritance the intimacy of a novel, in which shrewd observations are shared with the reader by an omniscient buddy. As portrayed by Hilton, he's the father figure every gay man needs (but so few actually get). Both mystical and tangible, his words seem to explain the whole world: "To fall in love is to make an appointment with heartbreak," he says, as 1,000 theatergoers simultaneously sigh in recognition.
Brilliant performances undergird this towering play: Hickey manages to make the plutocrat Wilcox charming and even reasonable-sounding despite the fact that his character is (gasp) a Republican. Samuel H. Levine is both guarded and vulnerable as Leo, a poor sad escort who bears a striking resemblance to rich happy Adam (also Levine), an actor in Toby's play and the object of his desire. Burnap captures Toby's velvet rage with terrifying vitality: Luciferian, this fallen angel delights in defying his authors, preferring to reign in a hell of his own creation.
Like a gay Frodo Baggins, Eric emerges as the noblest character thanks to a gut-wrenching performance by Soller. We feel his joy and sorrow as we follow him on his epic quest. Even viewers with dog-eared copies of Howards End will walk away surprised by this play that always manages to stay two steps ahead of its audience.
Stephen Daldry directs a production that showcases the words and performances by getting out of the way. Bob Crowley's set is a platform that stealthily adjusts. The actors leap barefoot onto that platform, instantly becoming their characters. Crowley's costumes tell the story of their rising and falling fortunes (only the wealthiest characters are afforded shoes). Jon Clark creates locations through gorgeous lighting, and Paul Englishby underscores key passages with his original music, which is sure to push you over the edge as you approach the precipice of tears. Crowley knows how to create arresting moments with minimal design, and his finale for the first part leaves not a dry eye in the house.
Critics with an axe to grind will undoubtedly ding The Inheritance for being insufficiently "intersectional." And indeed, there is a noticeable lack of diversity onstage, with just one woman in the cast (the heartbreaking Lois Smith), and trans people mentioned only in passing. But Lopez's failure to adhere to fashionable political orthodoxy by making his play about everything and everyone that the general population associates with the LGBT community doesn't negate the fact that he has written an excellent drama about a highly specific circle of gay men. In fact, that specificity and detail is what makes Lopez's characters feel so real, and what allows us to connect so intimately with them.
The best literature helps us understand lives radically different that our own, while also illuminating the human experience we all share. In its complex depictions of love, envy, and (above all) the lingering pain of loss, The Inheritance shines a particularly brilliant light. It is easily one of the best plays of the decade.