New York City Theater
Ethel Barrymore Theater
In Matthew Lopez’s two-part, six-and-a-half hour funny, moving, sensuous, literate but digressive epic “The Inheritance,” tangible meets intangible. The title has a double meaning -- inheriting property and inheriting history --- leading to the admonishment that the halves should “only connect.”
That last wish comes directly from E. M. Forster’s novel, “Howards End,” on which “The Inheritance” riffs. The novel’s title refers to a house with a history, a house to be inherited from an older man by a younger one. The other meaning of the inheritance examines how it should not be forgotten that the repressed AIDS plague era was a precursor to the open freedoms of same-sex marriage and adoptions. Both real estate and experiences are shared and passed from generation to generation.
Under Stephen Daldry’s stunning direction, 14 actors play 28 characters, sometimes acting as a Greek chorus, observing, commenting. The principals are Eric Glass (a sensitive Kyle Soller), a good-hearted Upper West Side Jewish lawyer, constantly facing rejection, and his sometime boyfriend, the aptly-named successful, narcissistic playwright Toby Darling (a florid Andrew Burnap). Their awakening is the evening’s crux, leading to acceptance and tragedy.
“What was the responsibility between gay men from one generation to another? What was Eric’s role in that continuum?” The answer is in the house that existed not only as a home but a way station of sorts where dying AIDS patients were nursed and comforted, its arms enfolding the needy.
Trying to piece together events of then and now is Adam (a terrific Samuel H. Levine who also plays a tormented hustler), the author’s spokesman. Conjuring E. M. Forster himself (a dignified Paul Hilton), here called by his middle name, Morgan, Adam enlists friends in examining their roles caring for and loving one another, reflecting a different past where uninhibited sexual encounters could be fatal.
“Why do you need to tell your story?” asks Morgan. “To understand it. To understand myself,” answers Adam. And this from Eric: “We need our community, we need our history. How else can we teach the next generation who they are and how they got here? Human culture from time immemorial has been transmitted through stories.”
The first part ends with a scene so shattering, there could not have been a dry eye in the audience. Those devastating final moments are more emotionally involving than much of the play, which has a tendency to dawdle.
It’s in the second part that Walter Poole (also a superb Paul Hilton), having left Howards End to Eric, also bequeaths him Henry Wilcox (a sensible John Benjamin Hickey), his former lover who lived through the plague years. In a preachy political discussion, Wilcox horrifies the other characters by defending himself not only as a Republican but one who voted for Donald Trump, prompting another character to say, “America isn’t worth saving anymore.”
The play’s not always clarified spine returns with the entrance of Margaret (the treasurable Lois Smith) who confesses, simply and humbly, how she expiated for past prejudices, especially negativity towards her gay son, by nursing the AIDS patients. “A haunting,” says Margaret. “A necessary haunting.” And another connection made.
Vital to the evening are Bob Crowley’s pristine set and costumes. With lighting by Jon Clark, sound by Paul Arditti and Christopher Reid and original music by Paul Englishby, this is a first-class production. Director Daldry here shows his genius in maneuvering actors and creating distinct characters down to the tiniest gestures.
“The Inheritance” is no “Angels in America,” which it resembles in length and subject matter: it lacks that masterpiece’s mystical, sociological and psychological depth. Yet, on its own, it’s effective as both dire warning and hopeful prediction, linking “the past, the present and the future all at once, all in concert.”
--David A. Rosenberg
Dec. 7, 2019