'The Inheritance': Theater Review

Courtesy of Marc Brenner
From left: Samuel H. Levine, Kyle Soller and Andrew Burnap in 'The Inheritance'
A flawed but fabulous act of queer communion between the living and the dead.

Stephen Daldry directs Matthew Lopez's two-part drama about gay New Yorkers, which draws inspiration from 'Howards End' to depict the generation after the AIDS crisis.

A mark of the clarity and surging vitality that Stephen Daldry's production brings to Matthew Lopez's The Inheritance is that the key theme of community and its essential role in the lives of gay men is suggested even before this emotionally resonant two-part drama begins. As the audience enters, we watch the young male ensemble loll around on the raised platform of designer Bob Crowley's ingenious minimalist set. Locked in individual pursuits yet unquestionably part of a group, they study books, tap away at laptop keyboards and scribble on notepads, occasionally exchanging playful gestures, unheard words and laughter.

It becomes apparent in the opening dialogue that all the men are working on writing projects, the collective subject encapsulated by one of them as "Me. My friends. The men I've loved. And those I've lost."

A bespectacled older Englishman (Paul Hilton) regards the group with an air that's part creative writing professor, part spiritual godfather. He's identified as E.M. Forster and addressed as Morgan, as he was known to his friends; his classic novel, Howards End, serves as an example to the young writers of how a great book can start with the seemingly simplest and most random of sentences. The 1910 novel also informs Lopez's narrative skeleton to a considerable extent, particularly in its profoundly moving illustration of the anchoring force of home, and how a scene of tragedy can become a place of deliverance, harmony, healing.

There's a lot going on in this sprawling work, which sometimes struggles to reconcile its virtuoso flourishes with its undisciplined ambition, as if Lopez had set out to write an important epic rather than responding organically to the dictates of the material itself. Set in and around New York from summer 2015 through spring 2018, it unavoidably invites comparison to Tony Kushner's sui generis landmark in big-canvas queer storytelling, Angels in America, and when Lopez attempts to fold in the kind of detailed political, social and historical context that makes that play so thrilling, his writing occasionally can lean toward the didactic.

The other work that comes to mind often during the combined six-and-a-half hours of The Inheritance is Hanya Yanagihara's bestselling 2015 novel A Little Life. Both stories center on bright young things making their way in New York, both unapologetically embrace melodrama in their examination of gay men's experience, and both aestheticize their characters' trauma and suffering, at times spilling over into literary fetishization.

But even when the playwright's hand becomes too visible, the talk too diffuse and the monologues a little too much like showpieces, the depth of feeling in Lopez's drama is frequently ravishing and the writing utterly gorgeous. The grounding humanism has its roots in Forster, but the humor, empathy and insightful observation of contemporary gay Manhattanites in their 20s and 30s — a generation that came out when the devastating plague years of the AIDS crisis already were being archived away as history — are very much Lopez's own.

The play is both wonderfully funny and exquisitely poignant, but its real achievement is the deft hand with which it connects multiple generations of gay men, underscoring the importance of sharing stories and keeping the past alive. That binding tissue forms a dialogue between today's young gay men — who have embraced their sexual identities during an era of gay marriage and wide cultural representation, when HIV has become a more treatable illness — with older men who fought for gay rights and endured the scourge of AIDS. Or didn't.

Through the Forster character, the play also loops back to a much earlier generation forced to live in a repressive culture of invisibility, in which domestic union between two men remained a rare and courageous choice.

Some of Hilton's most touching moments in a performance of unerring restraint come as Morgan expresses regret over the fears that held him back, even preventing him from publishing his seminal early 20th-century novel of homosexual love, Maurice, in his lifetime. His description of visiting the couple who inspired that story, the Victorian-era poet Edward Carpenter and his "husband" George Merrill, at their English countryside home is wistful and lovely, colored by the sad confession that while Forster knew he was gay, at age 33 he had still never touched a man with desire.

Lopez then uses humor to pull the recollection back from the maudlin edge by having Morgan describe the creative spring unleashed in him by some furtive ass-grabbing from Merrill.

The central figures of The Inheritance are young couple Eric Glass and Toby Darling, played in two brilliantly synergistic performances by Kyle Soller and Andrew Burnap, respectively. A kind and decent Yale Law graduate working for a social justice organization run by his hardline leftie friend Jasper (Kyle Harris), Eric sees himself as "painfully ordinary," while the more flamboyant Toby is an egocentric writer propelled by a giddy sense of his own exceptional talent and charm. He is introduced with a hilarious recap of a drunken display at a swanky East Hampton party the night before, which ended with him throwing up over the hosts' sofa and their dog, while it was sitting in Meryl Streep's lap.

Seven years into their relationship, Eric and Toby decide to marry. But when the play Toby adapted from his partly fraudulent memoir gets produced, he commits the ultimate act of romantic narcissism by falling for his leading man, Adam McDowell (Samuel H. Levine), adopted out of Arkansas poverty into well-heeled Manhattan privilege. Through all this turmoil, good and bad, Eric has kept quiet about the threat of eviction from the rent-controlled Upper West Side apartment handed down by his grandmother, throwing their precarious financial stability into harsh relief.

By contrast, Eric and Toby's downstairs neighbors are an extremely well-heeled older gay couple. In the most direct nod to Howards End, one is a billionaire Republican real estate developer named Henry Wilcox, played with keen-eyed intelligence and stealth sensitivity by the invaluable John Benjamin Hickey. And in an illuminating stroke of double-casting genius, his sickly partner of many years, Walter Poole, is played by Hilton. The century-spanning echoes of humanity between Morgan and Walter give the play a genuinely soul-stirring dimension that offsets the relative narrowness of its scope for a work of this length.

As a warm friendship develops between Eric and Walter, the younger man learns of the 18th century farmhouse in upstate New York that Henry and Walter bought to escape the unending round of hospital visits and funerals that the city had become for them by the late '80s. As Walter brought one terminally ill acquaintance after another to the house to die in dignity and peace, it became an informal hospice.

The significance of the house in Lopez's play is almost overwhelmingly powerful, paying homage to Howards End while cleverly appropriating a key element of Forster's novel to harness the spiritual properties of a place and its capacity for redemption to the decimation of an entire generation of gay men lost to AIDS. The writing is full-hearted and richly literary, narrated as often as it's dramatized. But it shimmers with theatricality under Daldry's exacting direction, notably in the closing scene of Part 1, an emotional reckoning that induces audible sobs throughout the theater. The importance of the house — and the mighty cherry tree that has stood in front of it for more than 400 years — is fortified further in breathtaking reveals by Crowley and lighting designer Jon Clark at various points, creating visuals both simple and sublime.

Part 2 takes more tangential detours once Morgan steps away as a guide and the young men start steering their own stories. Rebuilding his life after Toby, Eric forms a surprising bond that refuses to conform to the expected path of romance and marriage, while Toby spirals further out of control in his dependency on alcohol, drugs and sex. His rejection by Adam leads to a stop-start relationship with emotionally guarded hustler Leo (also played by Levine), whose strong resemblance to Toby's stage alter ego fuels the attraction. The extreme vulnerability and poverty of Leo (a composite of the Basts from Howards End) underscores the play's commentary on class divisions in an America where the wealth gap has become a chasm.

Lopez stuffs the scenes with stimulating argument, often to the point of bursting. But even when the strain is felt, as in a brunch at Henry's West Village townhouse, where his political views are playfully mocked at first, and then directly attacked (he admits to having donated to the Trump campaign), the characters never devolve into mere mouthpieces. That said, considering the extensive reach of the debate, it seems an oversight that the most pressing issue of our time, climate change, doesn't get a mention. Discussions of the lines separating gay men of different generations, and the commonalities drawing them together, generally carry more weight.

The second part is dominated by Toby's self-destructive behavior, dragging helpless Leo in his wake, and both Burnap and Levine hold nothing back in downward spirals that often are difficult to watch. But those two damaged men and their frantic Fire Island bacchanals are beautifully counterbalanced by the emergence of Eric as the legitimate heir, in every sense, to the compassionate examples set by Walter, and by Morgan before him. He becomes a repository for decades of hard-won wisdom and growth through painful experience, and the corresponding enrichment of Soller's characterization is one of the production's greatest satisfactions. At the same time, the crucial role of Henry in all this steadily coaxes him out of his cocoon of privileged detachment and into a world of messy feelings, a transition Hickey navigates with real heart, albeit without entirely surrendering the reserve that defines his complex character.

What pulls the unwieldy play together and provides thematic unity, however, is the appearance in the last 45 minutes of Part 2 of the sole female character, Margaret, played in a master class of fine-grained portraiture by the irreplaceable Lois Smith. A Southern transplant who has long served as the housekeeper at Henry and Walter's upstate home, Margaret relates her own history of shattering loss and bitter self-recrimination with a candor that makes her pain ours, too. Margaret clearly will remain troubled by the past for the rest of her life, but she recounts it with a serenity acquired through years of reflection. And when she welcomes the latest in a long succession of broken young men into the house, she places her hands on him as if to take physical possession of his ills and mend him with her warmth and care. It's a moment of uncommonly piercing tenderness that just wrecked me.

The lively ensemble of seven actors playing Eric and Toby's inner circle and various other roles all register distinctively drawn characters, with Arturo Luis Soria scoring the best lines as a swishy schoolteacher and Harris firing up in some impassioned exchanges as Jasper. Daldry choreographs them like a ballet master, notably in an ecstatic sex scene between Eric and Toby that achieves maximum sensuality through stylized movement. When not directly involved in the main action, the cast is positioned around the elevated platform — which drops into a sunken floor at certain points — interjecting commentary, providing amusing facial or gestural reactions, passing props or jumping up to participate as required. The physicality of the production is exhilarating; it stands easily among Daldry's best work for the stage.

As for the play, for all its imperfections, this is an audacious and impressive opus, not to mention a gift that celebrates the special love of gay men for the theater, and the countless talented gay theater artists lost to AIDS. A work so unequivocal about its core demographic — you don't get baskets of condoms and lube outside the restrooms at Phantom of the Opera, after all — comes with commercial risks in a Broadway economy too challenging for niche exclusivity. But there's universal significance in Lopez's eloquent espousal of the Forsterian imperative: "Only connect!"

Venue: Ethel Barrymore, New York
Cast: Kyle Soller, Andrew Burnap, Samuel H. Levine, Paul Hilton, John Benjamin Hickey, Lois Smith, Jordan Barbour, Jonathan Burke, Darryl Gene Daughtry Jr., Dylan Frederick, Kyle Harris, Carson McCalley, Arturo Luis Soria, Ryan M. Buggle, Tre Ryder
Director: Stephen Daldry
Playwright: Matthew Lopez, inspired by the novel Howards End, by E.M. Forster
Set and costume designer: Bob Crowley
Lighting designer: Jon Clark
Music: Paul Englishby
Sound designers: Paul Arditti, Christopher Reid
Production: The Young Vic
Presented by Tom Kirdahy, Sonia Friedman Productions, Hunter Arnold, Elizabeth Dewberry & Ali Ahmet Kocabiyik, 1001 Nights Productions, Robert Greenblatt, Mark Lee, Peter May, Scott Rudin, Richard Winkler, Bruce Cohen, Mara Isaacs, Greg Berlanti & Robbie Rogers, Brad Blume, Burnt Umber Productions, Shane Ewen, Greenleaf Productions, Marguerite Hoffman, Oliver Roth, Joseph Baker/Drew Hodges