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Broadway Reviews

The Inheritance

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - November 17, 2019

The Inheritance By Matthew Lopez. Inspired by the novel Howards End by E.M. Forster. Directed by Stephen Daldry. Designed by Bob Crowley. Lighting design by Jon Clark. Sound design by Paul Arditti and Christopher Reid. Original music by Paul Englishby. Associate director, Justin martin. Cast: Jordan Barbour, Ryan M. Buggle (Tre Ryder at certain performances), Jonathan Burke, Andrew Burnap, Darryl Gene Daughtry Jr., Dylan Frederick, Kyle Harris, John Benjamin Hickey, Paul Hilton, Samuel H. Levine, Carson McCalley, Lois Smith, Kyle Soller, and Arturo Luis Soria.
Theatre: Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue)

Kyle Soller, Paul Hilton, and John Benjamin Hickey
Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade
"Inspired by the novel Howards End by E.M. Forster," says the program for Matthew Lopez's The Inheritance, Parts One and Two, and that's a good way of putting it. Not an updating, not a literal adaptation, more a weird hybrid, Lopez's mammoth depiction of the last 30-odd years of gay American male-hood is a unique meditation. Lopez has written some fine plays—notably The Whipping Man, an out-of-left-field Civil War drama, and The Legend of Georgia McBride, a friendly comedy-in-drag—but nothing in his past work heralded an achievement like The Inheritance, nor the occasional awkwardness and polemical excess it displays.

Why, on earth, Howards End? Maybe Forster's empathy for people of all classes and subtle social criticism appealed to Lopez (would that he were as subtle). And, of course, there was Forster's homosexuality, necessarily hidden in that era, and his authorship of Maurice in 1913-14 and decision not to publish it until after his death. All these elements get a thorough workout, with Forster (Paul Hilton) coming back to life, circulating freely among the present-day dramatis personae, providing Edwardian-counterpoint commentary to the ribald goings-on, and gradually loosening up. It's a strange dynamic: Among this diverse, literate group of young gay men are several Forster fans, and they've read and loved Howards End, so how could they fail to predict the future, at least to the extent The Inheritance's plot echoes Forster's? They call him by his middle name, Morgan, as those closest to him did. They like him. And in Hilton's modest, sympathetic portrayal, they should.

We're in 2015-18, but not entirely, what with all the flashbacks and flash-forwards and characters' older and younger selves interacting with one another. There are a lot of guys up there, and it takes a while to figure out not only who's who but who has a Howards End counterpart and who doesn't. The chief protagonist, the novelist-playwright Toby (Andrew Burnap), is sort of Helen Schlegel, but only sort of. Talented, hedonistic, self-centered, self-destructive, he's damaged goods, and not a good prospect as a husband, a fact eventually grasped by his boyfriend Eric (Kyle Soller), a social activist. Eric befriends the big-hearted Walter (Hilton again) and, after Walter's death, marries his partner, the billionaire Henry Wilcox (John Benjamin Hickey)—see, there are direct Howards End stand-ins, and the noble, giving Eric is Margaret Schlegel in all but gender. To divulge too much plot, Forster-derived or not, would spoil a lot of the intrigue, but plenty of other characters matter. There are Henry's greedy sons, Charles (Jonathan Burke) and Paul (Kyle Harris); there's Tristan (Jordan Barbour), Eric's doctor friend who departs for Canada, Trump's America having convinced him, in a stirring speech, that "this country doesn't deserve people like me." Most crucially, there's Leo (Samuel H. Levine), the approximate equivalent of Forster's Jacky Bast, a lower-class hooker taken up by Toby because of his uncanny resemblance to Adam, the actor he was obsessed with—not a surprise, as Adam is also played by Levine—and later, more altruistically, by Eric.

Lois Smith and Samuel H. Levine
Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade
A lot to keep track of, isn't it? You don't know the half. This being gay New York, and mostly under-40-gay, there's also a lot of sex—some stylized, some fairly graphic—and a lot of talk about it. There are characters who pop up briefly to make points: Tucker (Dylan Frederick), Lopez's astute caricature of a contemporary artist, and Margaret (Lois Smith), who lost a son to AIDS and has a long monologue about it. Lois Smith is a national treasure, but she delivers this in a peculiarly perky fashion, and Lopez has already had his say about the ravages of the epidemic many times over.

Finally, and most disconcertingly, there are Lopez's frequent detours into soapbox territory. Having conceived an epic on an Angels in America scale, he has several objectives. He wants different generations of gay men to interact with and inform one another. He wants to instruct the younger ones in how the older ones bore an unspeakable crisis, fought impossible odds, and gave them an incalculably more accepting world to live in. He wants to remind people of all genders and orientations of the losses that were sustained. He wants to revisit Howards End and suggest how its conflicts might play out in a later age, and how Forster might react to them.

And, often, he wants to vent. The price of random sex during the epidemic. The responsibility of the rich. White privilege. The cost of gays winning respectability, how it eliminates the secret-society aspects the community enjoyed in decades past. Consciousness-raising among homophobes. Trump. There are arias on all of these and more. Some are quite moving, and I shall not soon forget the coup de théâtre Lopez pulls at the Part One curtain, nor the muffled sobs around me. But do these tangents tell us more about these people, or further the action? Not always. And the political fulminating can feel like Lopez preaching to the gay choir. Presidential putdowns, traditional-family sniping—will you get a reaction? Sure. And as the somewhat inferior Part Two progresses, more and more story is told through narration, when surely it would have greater impact if it were dramatized.

Lopez does know how to organize complicated material, and he has a deft hand with a comic line. The actors make a meal of it all, and while the cast is uniformly excellent, there are some standouts. Hickey carefully delineates the bad and (fewer) good qualities in Henry, charting his acquisition of something of a conscience and making him far more than a cardboard rich-guy villain. Levine nails both Adam's actorly finesse (he has an amazing monologue about Prague, with a terrific payoff) and Leo's lost-boy vulnerability. Burnap conveys why so many peers find Toby irresistible, despite his innumerable flaws. And Soller, well, how could anyone paint a more decent, expressive, appealing Eric? There are also Darryl Gene Daughtry Jr., Carson McCalley, and Arturo Luis Soria as the rest of the "Young Men"; Stephen Daldry's metatheatrical direction places them onstage most of the time, but compared to the principals, they really haven't that much to do.

Don't you love an elaborate Bob Crowley set—Carousel, The Capeman, Aladdin? Here he's designed a bare platform that briefly hollows out to become a Pines swimming pool. The spareness probably helps the wide-ranging storytelling. The Inheritance, after all, adds up to six and a half hours—Part One flies by like it's under two, Part Two doesn't—and most of the time we're quite caught up in the narrative and surging emotions; still, a little more visual stimulation wouldn't hurt. Jon Clark's expressive lighting is an asset, and Paul Arditti and Christopher Reid's sound design shakes the Barrymore walls for the disco moments while maintaining an almost-natural sound for the voices.

Having put in three years with GMHC in the late '80s, I wasn't particularly eager to revisit the harrowing landscape The Inheritance travels, but it performs a valuable service—acquainting the younger audience with, and reminding their elders of, what we went through—and does so in a way that entertains and sometimes mesmerizes. Every gay male theatergoer will want to see it, and after that, who's the audience? Well, one hopes, anyone who relishes a good story imaginatively told, fine actors, and salient if sometimes overemphatic political arguments. It's an Event, a worthwhile one—relevant, touching, and full of ghosts who deserve a hearing. One of them, E.M. Forster's, is presumably smiling.