One may as well begin with Forster, E.M. to state the obvious, called Morgan in Matthew Lopez’ The Inheritance, directed by Stephen Daldry, an ambitious, often powerful two-part epic of gay history as refracted and reconsidered through Forster’s Howards End. In very human, bespectacled form, Morgan serves as combination tour guide, writing coach, gay mentor, social conscience and overall sage to a collection of 21st Century Manhattan lost boys – young men, really, who seem more inclined to indulge their sense of nostalgia with Forster’s buttoned up era than the bloodier, uglier recent past that decimated their kind. The ghosts of the Plague hover still, invisible to the younger men who live from their sacrifices, ignorant for having never looked into the sunken eyes that filled Christopher Street not all that long ago.
Before the end of this two-part, six-and-a-half-hour play – opening tonight at Broadway’s Barrymore Theatre – Lopez and his phenomenally good dozen-plus-member cast will demand a reckoning of the ages, of Forster’s restrictive closet, of Manhattan’s Plague Years and of today’s, well, whatever today is, mean and brutal and not entirely free of hope.
Set mostly in 21st Century New York City and environs, The Inheritance extends, by 100 years and across vastly changed mores, Forster’s penetrating class-distinguishing gaze to the divisions – class, yes, but age, personal histories and, this being New York, degrees of ambition – among a tight group of youngish gay men in the “post-AIDS” years of the 2010s.
Played out on set designer Bob Crowley’s mostly barren, but somehow inviting, stage dominated by a grounded rectangular platform that will be called to service as, say, a writing seminar table, or a dinner table, or a swimming pool, to name a few, The Inheritance begins as its aborning characters wander onto the set, taking their places around that rectangle, sitting, lounging on pillows, in clusters or solo, but all writing – on paper, on computers. We seem to have stumbled into a writing seminar that isn’t going particularly well, the participants struggling to begin their stories.
Enter the teacher they call Morgan (Paul Hilton), and it doesn’t take us long to realize that he’s the very Morgan who wrote Howards End. In the flesh? Spectral? Does it matter any more than it did when angels and ghostly ancestors wandered Angels in America? The magic of the theater.
With help from the master, the young men begin piecing together the story, the tale, in fact, that will become this play. Its central couple is Toby Darling (just like Peter Pan’s lost boys) and Eric Glass (Howards End‘s Margaret Schlegel if you want to keep track, but such match-ups aren’t always so neat and rarely necessary). To their large circle of friends, they seem a durable, if not perfect, couple, Toby the struggling playwright with the dazzling wit, life of the party charm, good looks and enough mystery about his past to seem deeper than he might otherwise.
Eric (Kyle Soller), though, is the couple’s half that’s truly loved by friends, a plain-looking, unambitious or maybe just aimless, good-hearted man whose sprawling Upper West Side apartment – a rent-controlled reminder of a more civilized time in Manhattan’s not-so-distant past, when 15-room apartments weren’t the exclusive domain of hedge-funders and oligarchs. Friends love Eric, and they love Toby because Eric loves Toby (Andrew Burnap).
Whether the ambitious Toby loves Eric, or Eric’s apartment, will soon be tested when the wolves of the city’s shifting real estate rules come howling, one of the play’s many bumps that set the dominoes falling.
Among the friends: Jasper (Kyle Harris), Eric’s friend and boss, a leftist firebrand; Tristan (Jordan Barbour), a doctor and black man with HIV; two Jasons, romantically coupled (Darryl Gene Daughtry Jr. as the quieter, Arturo Luis Soria as the standard-bearer for a campier, more flamboyant age).
Four other men will enter this sphere, to life-changing effect. There’s the older couple, Walter (Hilton, again) and Henry (John Benjamin Hickey), neighbors in Eric’s building, extremely wealthy and givers of glam Hamptons parties the likes of which attract Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, Mariska Hargitay.
But it’s not just wealth and position that keep Walter and Henry at arms length, initially, from their young neighbors, but something even more divisive: Walter and Henry witnessed and survived the Plague, at unimaginable psychic cost that can’t be fully conveyed.
The other two newcomers fall on the younger end of the age spectrum. First arrives the beautiful (and very wealthy) Adam (Samuel H. Levine), a decade or so younger than Toby and Eric, a sharp but empty vessel for all the cultural offerings the brainy Eric can dump in and a wannabe actor for all the benefits that playwright Toby can provide. This Adam is like Eve, or Eves – the first, who brought temptation to paradise, and the second, who manipulated Margo Channing and stole the very title of their movie All About Eve.
After breaking a couple hearts, Adam is off to fame and fortune in Hollywood, leaving desolation – and a void soon filled by his doppelgänger Leo (played, again, by the excellent Levine), a sickly, addicted street rentboy chosen and used by Toby simply for his resemblance to the beloved Adam. A sweet, life-battered kid too scared to ask for the help he needs, Leo becomes a sort of project for Toby, and before long the two are the toast of Fire Island’s gay scene, giving in to every vice offered. Things, as they say, won’t end well.
If Adam/Leo represent youth and its corollary, the future, then Walter and Henry are the aged, and the past. With Eric alone in his apartment, he and the kindly, always patient Walter become friends, sharing a spiritual bond in their reverence for history and human connection. Henry Wilcox (even his last name is identical to Forster’s cold-hearted – initially – industrialist) is usually off on business trips (Saudi Arabia, no less, a signifier of modern corporate agnosticism), and even when home he’s stuffy and distant to everybody, especially Walter.
During their many talks, Walter tells Eric of a beautiful home he and Henry own in Upstate New York, a home with a bucolic charm that doesn’t begin to describe its special appeal. Years ago, it became the last refuge for hundreds of the city’s dying gay men, welcomed by the compassionate Walter but abandoned by a terrified, grieving Henry.
Walter, who alone knows he himself is dying, wants desperately to show Eric the home, certain he has found its spiritual caretaker, but dies before doing so. He does, however, leave a scrawled note to Henry – Walter wants the house, which Walter owns, to go to Eric. This, of course, is the inheritance of the title, although a much darker inheritance, passed generation to generation of gay men does not go unacknowledged.
If you know your Howards End, you know Henry, here encouraged by his two adult sons from an early marriage, does not follow through on Walter’s dying wish, and the note goes up in flames.
That deception – all the more guilt-inducing as the basically good Henry becomes more and more attached to the also grieving Eric – will lead to the play’s single greatest, most emotionally resonant moment, a visit by Henry and Eric to the house in question. The scene ends the Part 1 in a way I won’t spoil here, except to note that audience sobbing accompanied the scene’s unfolding, as the house’s past, present and maybe future become one.
But there’s no easy way to say the following: Part 2 of The Inheritance climbs nowhere near the peak of the Part 1 closer, any more than Kushner’s Perestroika could live up to that Angel smashing through the ceiling and into Millennium Approaches. The convoluted romantic entanglements, plot developments and loose-end-tying, driven in part by our knowledge that one character – we know who – will not survive the play, keeps interest from flagging. But some of the larger questions the play raises prove more intriguing in the asking than the answering. Chiefly, as Forster himself asked, what do we owe ourselves, our families and the larger community? To whom are we responsible? Are we our brothers’ keepers?
Henry, the self-made conservative (and Trump-supporting) billionaire (made rightfully non-villainous by the ever likable, nuanced Hickey) would argue that his responsibility is solely to himself, his family and his stockholders, leaving the rest to his beloved capitalism to disperse the fruits of his labor. Eric’s liberal friends see only greed in Henry, and waste, and hoarding.
And they all say just that in one of the play’s liveliest, most urgently stated scenes: Eric’s dinner party intended to introduce his new love Henry to his old friends. Things do not go well. Henry’s politics, his massive wealth, his seeming indifference to the struggles of the gay community, outrage the other guests, particularly the HIV-positive Tristan, appalled when Henry defends Big Pharma’s history of AIDS research, and Jasper, the left-wing firebrand who more or less kills the evening with accusations, insults and shouting. When Jasper dismisses “gay men your age,” Henry bellows, “THERE ARE NO GAY MEN MY AGE!”, the wall between generations pre- and post-Cocktail insurmountable.
(In description, The Inheritance might seem overly, well, heavy, unhumorous. Not so – the play is as much comedy as drama. Burnup, as the charismatic but empty Toby, gets the bulk of the play’s comic highlights, and has the timing of a stopwatch to see them through.)
The play, so cleverly and efficiently directed by Daldrey as to all but eliminate whatever confusion might have come from the complex narrative fluctuations and character-shifting, has no shortage of high-impact scenes, including one in which young Adam, heretofore the very definition of callow, describes in grim detail a past encounter at a Czech gay bathhouse that went very wrong (if it happened at all).
And in a scene that most pointedly pays homage to Angels in America, Barbour’s Tristan explains to the bewildered Eric in no uncertain terms just how much he hates America, suggesting just how little has changed for black gay men since Belize made that like-minded speech to Louis in Central Park so many years ago.
Perhaps I’m pushing the Angels button too hard when I see shades of Mother Pitt in Margaret (Lois Smith), the beloved home’s caretaker whose past is revealed and her story best left for her to tell.
Angels, incidentally, isn’t the only work echoed in The Inheritance, fitting for a play so insistent on honoring the past: Soria’s Jason #2 could be The Boys in the Band‘s Emory arrived in a world of acceptance and opportunity he wouldn’t recognize, and the communal utopia of Love! Valour! Compassion! is reflected in much of this play’s final scenes, rushed and overloaded as they are.
What I couldn’t find in the final scene, though, was a convincing or thoroughly satisfying answer to those big questions of responsibility, of community, of the larger good. Eric, it’s suggested early, is destined for great things, and indeed he lives an admirable, compassionate life, bettering the world for everyone he welcomes into his own. And his world, of course, is the house that in another tale would be called Howards End. Whether that’s considerably different from Henry’s corporate retreatism is unaddressed – do the philosophies of the businessman differ so greatly from the actions of the loyal friend when each benefits only those within their orbits? Jasper’s greater-world concerns go by the wayside, too naive or unwieldy, maybe, or perhaps merely deemed unnecessary in the warm glow of kinship burnishing that lovely, lovely country home.