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Theatre in Review: The Inheritance, Parts One and Two (Ethel Barrymore Theatre)

Kyle Soller, Paul Hilton, John Benjamin Hickey. Photo: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade.

That an enormous cherry tree is a key image in The Inheritance is appropriate, since Matthew Lopez's drama is something of a dramatic botanical experiment, transplanting the trunk of E. M. Forster's Howard's End into a contemporary landscape inhabited almost entirely by gay men. This is, perhaps, the boldest gambit of a playwright who is not risk-averse: At the performance I attended, one sexually explicit monologue led to multiple audience walkouts. (Lovers of genteel, plushly appointed Merchant-Ivory film adaptations are hereby warned.) Nevertheless, the graft is successful, resulting in a work that spreads its branches far and wide, touching on multiple aspects of the way we live now. Just as Howard's End, ostensibly about the fate of a country house, probes the heart of English society before World War I, The Inheritance focuses on gay New Yorkers, finding meaning in the continuity between generations and daring to wonder whether this troubled country may yet be rescued by simple kindness. Indeed, Lopez builds on the gay writers who preceded him: In 1968, The Boys in the Band looked at a not dissimilar group of characters, one of whom says, "If we could just...learn not to hate ourselves so much." In 2019, The Inheritance expands on W. H. Auden's famous thought, "We must love one another or die."

Precipitating the action of The Inheritance is the breakup, after seven years, of Eric Glass and Toby Darling; as they pursue new destinies, they provide the twin pillars of a drama that is remarkable for its novelistic richness and nuance. (Hence its length of roughly six-and-a-half hours, spread over two performances.) Eric, who has an ill-defined job working for a "social justice entrepreneur," is the warmhearted center of his circle of youngish gay men; Toby is a writer with an allegedly autobiographical novel to his credit -- although, since he never discusses his past, it's hard to tell. (He describes his main character as "a twenty-first-century Holden Caulfield," adding, "he's basically me." But is he?) When first introduced, they are, like Forster's Schlegel sisters, gifted with real estate, inhabiting a rent-controlled Upper West Side apartment that has long been in Eric's family. Trouble looms when it becomes apparent that the decades-long lease, in the name of Eric's deceased grandmother, must be broken. But the men become engaged -- amusingly, Eric proposes during a sexual encounter -- and Toby lands an opportunity to adapt his play for the stage, in a major production with a name director attached.

Eric and Toby's relationship unravels when they are separated for a time, each forming a revealing new alliance. Toby, in Chicago for rehearsals, becomes obsessed with the lead actor, Adam, a child of privilege who has, in some ways, lived the life that Toby portrays in his novel and play; Toby's frantic pursuit of him gives the younger man his first taste of erotic power. At the same time, Eric draws close to Walter, one half of a wealthy middle-aged couple. Walter's decades-long partnership with Henry, a real estate developer, is marked by frequent separations (for business) accompanied by an unsettling emotional distance. ("There isn't that much to it," Walter says. "Just a succession of dinners.") But Walter and Henry are also survivors of the plague years of the 1980s. In what is, hands down, the most astonishing aria to be heard in New York at this moment, Walter tells Eric the story of his youth ("Small towns have the peculiar habit of tolerating their feathery, delicate boys") and his decision, like so many others, to flee to New York. ("And so I left...to seek not my fame and certainly not my fortune, but rather -- and rather simply -- my dignity.") Falling in love with Henry, who was married with two sons, they forged a hard-won happiness until the epidemic hit and, unable to face the sight of young men wasting away, their bodies covered in lesions, they fled to a house in the country. During one of Henry's frequent long absences, Walter, returning to the city, discovered an old friend who was desperately ill and brought him home to die -- but, by introducing the fact of AIDS into their retreat, he unwittingly erected a permanent barrier between himself and the man he loved.

The speech, written entirely without histrionics, is delivered, quietly and wrenchingly, by the British actor Paul Hilton, making his Broadway debut, and it is one of the finest accounts I know of the day-to-day devastation of those years, when men were ravaged, seemingly overnight, often losing their homes and loved ones in the process. (In many cases, their biological families were worse than useless, if not outright antagonistic.) It alone would justify the existence of The Inheritance. But Lopez follows up with a trip to the country house ("It was as old as the nation"), where Eric has an epiphany, a commingling of past and present realized in a simply executed coup de théâtre that resulted in a stunned silence at the performance I attended. I won't describe it except to note that it offers a heartrending image of a generation pitilessly wiped out in its prime.

Hilton also plays Forster, here known as Morgan, who is an active participant in telling the story -- the other characters, who also take turns as narrators, accept his presence as entirely natural -- at least until an embittered Toby denounces him for not publishing in his lifetime Maurice, the gay romance that was acclaimed when finally made public in 1971. Toby wants to know: How many lives might have been saved if the author had done the brave thing? The argument is both brutally unfair -- after all, what respectable house would have put it out in 1914? -- and accurate; after all, somebody had to stand up, somewhere, sometime. It is a question that reverberates through both parts of The Inheritance, a play in which past and present exist on a visible continuum: The action is filled with apparitions, ghosts of the characters' younger selves, and the commentary of a closeted writer and Cambridge don who, nevertheless, provided inspiration to subsequent generations. Humbled by Toby's query, Morgan absents himself from the action for a time, but he can never be fully banished. This, The Inheritance insists, is because history is the house that all of us inhabit; try to escape it, seeking private happiness, and disaster will follow.

Which is what happens here: Following Walter's death, Eric, facing the loss of Toby and his childhood home, becomes romantically involved with the enigmatic, oddly distant Henry -- learning, to his chagrin, that Henry is a Republican who has casually donated to the campaign of the current occupant of the White House. That he isn't portrayed as villainous or, at least, criminally indifferent is a sign of Lopez's charity toward his characters, but it does lead to some unbridled arguments. Defending the free market, Henry notes that the profit motive drove pharmaceutical companies to find treatments for AIDS in record time; a friend of Eric's adds, pointedly, that infection rates remain high among the black and trans populations, few of whom can afford the treatments that reduce the disease to a chronic annoyance; Henry's miracle is largely restricted to his class. Yet, responding to another's remark about "gay men your age," the typically composed Henry responds with a wounded roar, "There are no gay men my age! Not nearly enough." The comment is deeply revealing: Elevated to a life of wealth and previously unimagined privilege, Eric discovers the melancholy secrets of Henry's life with Walter, all of them directly related to the country house and explicative of Henry's walled-off heart.

Meanwhile, Toby becomes the kind of monster that show business is so good at producing, a wounded egomaniac whose pursuit of selfish pleasure spins wildly out of control, alienating his friends and professional colleagues. Spurned by Adam, who is on a fast track to stardom, and riddled with self-disgust over the success of a play that only he and Eric know is a tissue of lies, Toby becomes infatuated with Leo, a desperate young hustler who happens to be Adam's double (and whose origins eerily resemble the personal history from which Toby is in permanent flight.) But Toby is too far gone for love; instead, he draws Adam into a nonstop cycle of sex and drugs that culminates in a series of Fire Island orgies that leave the younger man physically and psychologically degraded.

These two plotlines intersect on Eric and Henry's wedding day, in a twist that sends gasps through the audience, but which, if you've read Howard's End, can be anticipated. (Yes, it's melodramatic, but blame Forster.) It leads to a series of reckonings between, among others, Eric and Toby and Eric and Henry, which have the effect of shocking Eric into taking action that propels him toward an entirely new and productive life. Toby finally faces the truth about his horrific past, but the admission is more scalding than cleansing, leading to tragedy. By then, The Inheritance has expanded its argument to embrace questions that are eternally central to America: Are we a community based in caring or a nation of individuals in pursuit of personal satisfaction? Can we reach beyond the tribes that define us? And if we cannot love ourselves, how can we love others?

This is a great deal to pack into any play, and The Inheritance has a depth and breadth not previously seen in Lopez's very fine earlier work. Despite a few instances of contrivance and a certain difficulty in wrapping up the narrative -- one starts to feel the length during the last act of the second part -- the playwright has made extraordinary use of Howard's End, folding it into a modern context and adapting it to his needs. Stephen Daldry's production makes a virtue of simplicity, arranging most of the cast around the uncluttered, rising-and-falling stage deck designed by Bob Crowley; in addition, the upstage masking occasionally opens to reveal crucial images, most notably Walter and Henry's country place, seen as a dollhouse floating in darkness; scene after scene is evocatively lit by Jon Clark, who finds tremendous variety in choices of angle and different temperatures of white -- only rarely, and for certain effects, does he turn to saturated colors. Crowley's costumes draw subtle distinctions between the characters, making clear the vast differences between Adam and Leo and acting as a reliable guide to Toby's personal descent. The sound design, by Paul Arditti and Christopher Reid, provides delicate reinforcement for Paul Englishby's spectral incidental music, in addition to a number of effects.

Daldry, who originally staged The Inheritance at the Young Vic, combines members of the London production with new faces to excellent effect. Kyle Soller's emotionally transparent Eric, a still-boyish figure in his thirties, grows in stature throughout, becoming, through grief, Walter's spiritual heir and building on his legacy of caring. Andrew Burnap works wonders in terms of keeping Toby sympathetic as his path becomes ever more self-destructive; his ultimate reckoning is a searing account of the self-hatred inculcated in so many gay youths. In addition to his show-stopping turn as Walter, Hilton also doubles effectively as Morgan; the latter's tender, penetrating insights are much missed during his absence in the early scenes of Part Two. (At the performance I attended, his return was greeted with an ovation.) Samuel H. Levine is equally incisive as Adam and Leo, both of them innocents headed in wildly opposite directions. John Benjamin Hickey finds the essential decency in Henry, who ignores Morgan's maxim, "The only way to heal heartache is to risk more," to his everlasting grief. The luminous Lois Smith arrives at the eleventh hour of the second half to offer Leo -- who is too young to remember -- a tutorial in the epidemic's terrible logic: "It's because these men's illness required that Americans think about the means by which they contracted it. It required that we look at gay men and accept their nature, accept their affection and their desire for one another as equal to our own. Most people couldn't do that. And so, in our discomfort, we let them die." The actress delivers this account, which takes in the death of Margaret's estranged son, with a restraint that is superbly of a piece with the rest of the production.

For anyone -- especially gay men -- who lived through this aspect of the eighties, The Inheritance is likely to call up ghosts that one thought had long been exorcised -- there were moments when I was, frankly, overwhelmed with feeling -- but it is, I submit, a play with implications for everyone. As Tristan, a supporting character well-played by Jordan Barbour (no relation to your reviewer), insists, "America has AIDS," its body politic compromised by multiple infections of "fear, propaganda, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, white nationalism." As Lopez shows, gay history is American history, and we are all in it together. Until we understand this, recovery will be impossible. -- David Barbour

(2 December 2019)

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