There is a double meaning to the title of Matthew Lopez’s ambitious two-part play “The Inheritance,” with a total running time of some six and one-half hours. On the one hand the title refers to a question of inheriting a historically important mansion, depicted in miniature, where gays plagued with AIDS were given refuge. The title also refers to the heritage of gay struggle and history handed down to contemporary homosexuals who have new problems of their own.
The cumulative effect of the play, incisively directed by Stephen Daldry on a set that consists mainly one wide low platform, is powerful, although it could very well be shortened. Yet, with a superb cast and riveting emotional highlights, seeing “The Inheritance” is an overwhelming experience, especially if you attend the two parts on the same day with a dinner break between, as I did.
E.M Forster’s 1910 novel “Howard’s End” inspired Lopez, and indeed one can find connections. When he wrote “Howard’s End,” it did not involve homosexuality--it was only later that Forster would admit to being gay. One of the things that Lopez has done is to create the character Morgan as a stand-in for Forster. Morgan, memorably played by Paul Hilton, becomes the guide to telling the story, steering Toby Darling (Andrew Burnap), who is an author, and others into how the drama is meant to unfold. He thus becomes a unique kind of narrator while also emerging as a tribute to Forster. (Morgan was Forster’s middle name.)
The play takes place in New York ity and its environs.What we witness is the relationships between various gay men in a mix of assorted difficulties in finding the right mate, happiness and success in life. Toby is especially troubled, and in Part 2 he has a big moment in which he pours out an agonizing description of the anxieties stemming from his childhood.
There is Eric (Kyle Soller), who is in love with Toby. Samuel H. Levine, plays Adam, with whom Toby is intrigued, and also has a juicy role as Leo, a male prostitute, John Benjamin Hickey delivers an astute characterization as conservative Henry Wiilcox, a successful businessman who wants to have a homosexual relationship without the sex as a result of his still mourning for his dead previous partner.
Hovering over everything is the past AIDs epidemic. There is a particularly powerful moment when ghostly representations of a generation of men of many talents who, one can presume, were AIDS victims, turn up to gather on stage, in effect making a statement that they are not to be forgotten,
Some of the emotional conflicts between the key men are basically of the sort that might also plague heterosexual couples, although under difference circumstances. Parts of what goes on could be cut. There is no need for the play to be as long as it is, although length is a statement in itself that calls for extra attention to the aspirations of the work.
There is a good deal of humor, as when Toby early on confesses to having thrown up on Meryl Streep at a wild party. Lopez has the ability to get laughs without undercutting the seriousness of what he is attempting.
There is only one woman in the cast, the phenomenal Lois Smith as Margaret, the caretaker of the all-important mansion. In Part 2 she has a long soliloquy in which she reveals much about her life and taking care of her dying son and oothers, and one gains renewed respect for her acting strength.
There is so much to experience in this unusual and important work, and it is highly recommended as one of the major plays of this theater season. It also deserves to take its place as one of the key works devoted to illuminating various aspects of gay lives. At the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 248 West 47th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed November 29, 2019.