Theatre Review: The Inheritance (Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York) ★★★★★

Matthew Lopez’s Best Play Olivier award-winning The Inheritance, directed by Stephen Daldry, has arrived on Broadway following last year’s highly acclaimed production at London’s Young Vic and its West End transfer, with many of the original cast. Inspired by E. M. Forster’s novel Howards End, the epic two-part play examines multigenerational gay life in New York. It essentially asks what it means to be a gay man today, recognising that to truly know who we are now, we need to understand where we have come from.

Part One opens with a group of young writers joined by a playful and paternal E. M. Forster, referred to as Morgan (Paul Hilton), who helps one man overcome his writer’s block to begin creating the story that’s ‘banging around inside him, aching to come out’. As this writer’s story – the one we’re about to watch for next six and a half hours – begins to take shape, the cast leave their roles as writers behind to take on various characters as they’re suggested to them, giving the opening section a spontaneous, improvised feel. Throughout much of the play the impressively versatile ensemble remains on stage, intently focused, reacting and ready to leap into action.

As some characters are established by the cast in front of us there’s an initial period where we see that formation, with subtle vocal and physical changes, and new information being incorporated into their portrayals as it’s given to them. One of the play’s themes is storytelling, how to tell our stories and the importance of LGBTQ history being passed on from one generation to the next. There’s no storytelling without an engaged audience and Lopez’s writing and Daldry’s direction invite us to feel like active participants, our imaginations engaged throughout, as if we’re part of the creation of the very story we’re being told. Our investment is rewarded with a deep connection to the characters and a rich experience, like being enveloped in a good novel, but not as solitary.

At the centre of both parts of the play is Eric Glass (a wonderful, soulful Kyle Soller) who works in social justice and his boyfriend of six years, published novelist turned playwright, Toby Darling (a compelling, often hilarious Andrew Burnap). The pair shares a spacious rent stabilised apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side where they host Eric’s thirty third birthday dinner joined by their close circle of friends including Jasper (Kyle Harris), Tristan (Jordan Barbour) and the Jasons (Darryl Gene Daughtry Jr and Arturo Luis Soria). The group is interrupted by the arrival of a handsome aspiring young actor, twenty-something Yale grad Adam McDowell (a nuanced tour de force by Samuel H. Levine), who Toby and Eric take under their wings as cultural mentors. As the play progresses Eric finds himself becoming increasingly close to two wealthy older men he’s already acquainted with, Walter Poole (an exceptional Paul Hilton) and his partner Henry Wilcox (a magnificent John Benjamin Hickey). It’s chiefly through Eric spending time with these men that present day gay life shares a dialogue with its past, primarily the deep scars of the AIDS epidemic.

The end of Part One builds to a poignant, profoundly moving scene, as we reflect on the trauma of the plague years, encountering the ghosts of those lost. The audience at the performance I was at audibly wept. It was the first time I’d been in an auditorium surrounded by so many people who were sobbing. It’s a powerful shared theatrical experience and one of the production’s most memorable scenes; a simple, beautiful tribute to the spirits of those men who should be walking the city streets among us and filling seats of Broadway theatres. As I returned to my seat a couple of hours later for Part Two, I immediately felt emotional again, being back in that communal space where we’d all been part of something so deeply affecting.

As the agonising election night of November 2016, complete with Hilary t-shirts, balloons and disappointment, passes there are both implicit and explicit comparisons between the incoming administration’s threats to equality, minorities and democracy itself and the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. As Walter describes initially turning his back on New York in the mid-80s, so, three decades on, does Eric leave the country in the days of reawakened activism, missing the Women’s March and the travel ban protests. There’s even a brilliantly articulated, and persuasively delivered, argument that the current occupant of the White House ‘is HIV: a cunning, pernicious retrovirus that has attached himself to the very core of American democracy…’.

Enough about politics. Let’s talk about sex (baby). Well, there’s nudity, some very skimpy underwear, and yes, portrayals of various shades of gay sex that feel authentic. There’s also fun and humour in a depiction of bareback sex in one of the central relationships that is essentially an open one, ‘monogamous, not monotonous’. There’s pre-PrEP unprotected sex with the use of emergency PEP, bathhouse group sex and house party chemsex, the emotional detachment of sex that’s paid for, and even a sexless relationship. The most explicit sex scene though is purely descriptive – left for our imaginations to create the pictures – it’s not filtered through what might be acceptable for a polite crowd on Broadway, or designed to shock, it just sounds genuine.

The Inheritance isn’t entirely populated by gay male characters. Late in Part Two, 89 year-old Lois Smith takes to the stage and brings a lifetime of experience, light and shade to her impactful role, the play’s only female character, Margaret.

Bob Crowley’s beautifully designed, minimal set, along with some vivid descriptions provided by characters who occasionally narrate between dialogue, again allows the audience to participate and engage their imaginations to create their own images of the locations. When there are props on stage, like Toby’s box of belongings from his deceased parents, they radiate with significance. In the absence of a detailed naturalistic set, the appearance of Walter’s Upstate New York house in the distance with it’s cherry tree, a hand covered with blood, or even just a few falling petals all create powerful moments. In keeping with the production’s minimalism, Paul Englishby’s achingly melancholic, at times unsettling music is sparingly used, enhancing the mood, but never manipulating us.

The Inheritance is a monumental achievement. Lopez, Daldry and the phenomenal cast have created an indelible theatrical experience to be treasured alongside many of the major queer works that are referenced in the play like Giovanni’s Room, Maurice and Call Me By Your Name, as well as one of its theatrical benefactors, that other epic two-part play that deals with gay life, AIDS and politics, Tony Kusher’s Angels in America. Another play worth comparing The Inheritance to is Mart Crowley’s Boys in the Band, a pre-AIDS, pre-Stonewall work that premiered on Broadway in 1968 (revived last year). Back in the late sixties Crowley was asking some of the same questions Lopez is today: Who are we as gay men? What is our legacy? How do we fit into the world? How do we deal with our internalised homophobia? A trait exhibited by characters in different ways in Lopez’s play. Fifty years on the answers might be different, but no less complex.

By James Kleinmann

The Inheritance is currently booking until Sunday March 15th 2020 at New York’s Ethel Barrymore Theater, 243 West 47th Street. We highly recommend seeing both parts on the same day if you can, or at least seeing them as close together as possible. Tickets are available by calling 212-239-6200, at Telecharge.com, or by visiting the box office. For the complete performance schedule and more production details head to www.TheInheritancePlay.com.

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