The Review: Broadway’s The Inheritance
I feel fortunate. Very, as always when I pick up my press tickets. Grateful that this blog and my writing of theatre reviews has gifted me with these moments. But today, I feel even more blessed. I saw this play in London over last year’s Thanksgiving holiday, and to be able to see it again, with my best theatre junkie buddy, who missed it by a week in London, feels like the best gift one could be thankful for. I’m curious though. It packed such a powerful punch last year, as The Inheritance truly surprises us, moment to moment, with its tender power and strong parallel story-telling. It slides in almost unsuspecting, finding a way to deliver a heart breaking truth and an emotional reality that sends me, almost, over the edge. Will it have that same punch, as I won’t be surprised but expectant? And I won’t gasp, as the crowd did when the Leo/Henry connection slaps us upside the back of the head. My only answer to that, is a heartfelt apology to the woman sitting in front of me, who thought I must be having some sort of emotional breakdown of epic proportions at least two or three times throughout the seven hours of The Inheritance. So be forewarned. Knowing or not knowing doesn’t change the impact, it just alters the vantage point, but does not dampens the force.
The play is compared frequently to Angels in America in a both positive and negative light, and rightly so. It is clearly a homage-creation based on the same epic proportions of its predecessor. It pushing itself solidly onto the fireside mantle somewhere to the right of Kushner’s far more ethereal exploration of AIDS in America. With a slightly aggressive and pompous stance of an overly confident pretty boy, playwright Matthew Lopez (The Legend of Georgia McBride, The Whipping Man) dares us to look deeply into its imperfect but devastatingly emotional six acts and seven hours. Angels is considered by many as the “most beautiful and far reaching introduction to a place and time representing the History of Gay America in the 1980’s“, and to even attempt to align himself and his play with that signpost is a brave act of determination. But even in comparison, The Inheritance is most decidedly a masterpiece, almost measuring up to Kushner’s triumph as it dives head first into 21st Century queer politics and the economic discrepancies that plague modern culture and society.
I had wanted to watch, read, and rewatch the magnificent Howard’s End, the classic novel by E. M. Forster that I have never read, before seeing The Inheritance once again. Timing and the lack of spare moments never afforded me that luxury, but I did fall in love with the 1992 movie many years ago when I first saw it. The beautifully orchestrated film starring the amazing Emma Thompson as Margaret Schlegel, Helena Bonham Carter as sister Helen, Vanessa Redgrave as Ruth Wilcox, Anthony Hopkins as her wealthy husband, Henry, and Samuel West as the pitiful but lovely Leonard Bast, has been described as a touching deconstruction and examination of the three social classes of Edwardian England at the beginning of the 20th Century. The Wilcoxes are considered the Victorian capitalists, with the Schlegel sisters as the enlightened bourgeois brimming over with humanistic and philanthropic tendencies, and the young Bast standing in for the struggling working class intellect fighting hard to survive in London as a mere clerk.
The dual plot delicately revolves around a death-bed wish by Ruth, the sickly and ignored wife of Henry Wilcox, a man of significant wealth. She asks to bequeath her beloved country house, Howards End, to Margaret, and not one of her children or husband. The Wilcox family deems this request as financially non-binding and decides to not give the house away, nor tell Margaret, even with the knowledge that she has become, over the last little while a new and very dear kindred spirit to Ruth. Meanwhile, Margaret’s sister Helen has taken a strong interest, mostly philanthropic, in Leonard Bast, a poor married working class clerk, who slowly descends the ladder of success, mainly because of Henry Wilcox’s un-asked for advice, at Helen’s insistence and interference. As Margaret gravitates towards Henry Wilcox after Ruth’s death, eventually becoming engaged, Helen becomes more and more aligned with Leonard, and the Howards End house finds its way, quite naturally, into its rightful hands. The parallels to The Inheritance are clearly striking and extremely well formulated, with clever shifts and alterations.
It’s no wonder that the ambitious Lopez was struck by the political and social layers of Howards End and saw within a construct that could fit somewhere inside the psyche of this new generation of gay men, especially taking into account Edward Morgan Forster’s own personal battle with his visibility and hidden sexuality. Paying a certain homage to the fore-bearers of gay culture, The Inheritance tackles with aplomb a tremendous amount of complicated territory. It owes itself more to the closeted E. M. Foster than Kushner though, yielding a monumental piece about the turbulent lives of a group of young, ambitious gay New Yorkers floundering and excelling, just like the Schlegels. This go round, Forster’s sisters are now Lopez’s lovers, sometime after the peak of the AIDs crisis in New York City, living the life of the somewhat privileged, even if they don’t realize it at the time. They are unconsciously strutting proudly through the newly informed gay frontier of sexual liberation and love relationships, with marriage equality readily at hand, and the upcoming and disturbing loss of fellows to addiction and abandonment standing just outside their door. Spanning generations of attachments and the entanglement of lives and loves, The Inheritance bridges the themes of E. M. Forster’s novel, attaching itself to the past and present New York City, while trying with all its might to understand the legacy that threads the two together and what the two worlds owe one another in care and thoughtfulness.
One by one the men at the core off this drama wander in, taking their places on the bare rectangle platform, designed with a beautiful refined ease by Bob Crowley (Broadway’s An American in Paris) with superb delicate lighting by Jon Clark (Young Vic/St. Ann’s A Streetcar Named Desire), solid sound design by Paul Arditti (West End/Broadway’s King Charles III) & Christopher Reid (West End/Broadway’s Harry Potter…) and gorgeously period-crossing original music by Paul Englishby (West End/Broadway’s The Audience). The space easily serves forth the delicious feast, reminiscent of the last supper, one that we are about to partake in and be moved by with such beautiful force. We aren’t sure who the main story-teller is at the moment, but all these men seem to be in need of some guidance to write the stories of their lives. “Let’s have a look at them“, and so they turn, most delicately and decisively to the wise and structured E. Morgan Forster, played with sweet stiffness by the glorious Paul Hilton (“The Crown“). With his steady and kind repressed hand most beautifully crafted and delivered, the hounds of a rethought Howards End are released. Directed with impeccable care by the magnanimous Stephen Daldry (West End/Broadway’s Billy Elliot, Skylight), the oral history of flawed engagement goes strongly for the “Wow“, diving in full, following the antiquated Queensbury rules as it attempts to know thyself, the story of pig’s teeth, and the tangled web of The Inheritance.
It all starts with a voicemail, introducing us to the gentle and kind Eric Glass, played to perfection by the wonderful Kyle Soller (National’s Edward II) and his boyfriend, Toby Darling, a writer of narcissistic impression, played fully by the handsome Andrew Burnaps (Vineyard’s This Day Forward). “Eric Glass did not believe he was special“, we are told, and while that personal affliction never enters the mind of Toby, Burnap’s young writer saunters with an entitled pride, although his past doesn’t support his construct. He has written an acclaimed and self-described autobiographic novel, although based on that same insincere construct, that he is now adapting for the stage. He believes in his power far more than the gentle Eric does in his own, and even as they are presented initially as the love-struck couple, we see the cracks and the mismatched puzzle pieces colliding far before the foreseeable destruction that comes in the form of a duality thrust upon them, reminiscent of Forster’s Leonard Bast.
The contrast, especially in that deliciously sexually interaction between these two and Hilton’s Morgan encapsulates all that this play is laying out; the levels of advancement and the traps we all can fall into. With Lopez replacing umbrellas with Strand Bookshop bags, the introduction of Adam McDowall, forcible portrayed by the breathtakingly good Samuel H. Levine (LCT’s Kill Floor), one of the threads that will lead to destruction and enlightenment, is off and running with a clarity and authentic-ness that is quite appealing and forever heart-breaking. Levine does an excellent job playing the leading man-to-be, a stand-in of half sorts of Forster’s Bast, although dramatically and financially not one and the same. He is basically a hat-trick slight-of-hand that will become apparent later on. His initial introduction to the cast of others: the proud activist Jasper, dynamically portrayed by the solid and handsome Kyle Harris (Old Globe’s A Room With a View); the best friend Tristan, forcibly played by Jordan Barbour (TFANA’s Julius Caesar); the appealing husbands, Jason #1 and Jason #2, joyfully portrayed by Darryl Gene Daughtry Jr. (Shakespeare in the Park’s Coriolanus) and the delicious Arturo Luís Soria (Barrow Street’s Hit the Wall); and the other young passionate men: Dylan Frederick (Yale Rep’s Assassins), who also beautifully portrays the young Walter; Jonathan Burke (Broadway’s Choir Boy) who also plays the aggressive young Charles Wilcox; and Carson McCalley (“Human Capital“) who also touchingly portrays the young Henry; leaves us all, including Eric and Toby, wanting more and more of the complex Adam creation. He’s a lucky orphan adopted into wealth and privilege, in a way that only Toby could dream of, but as manipulative and seductive as the blind and willing Toby. The impressiveness of Levine also excels later on, ratcheting up the drama most determinedly by playing the other slice of Forster’s Leonard Bast, the downtrodden and emotionally abused and discarded Leo with a powerfully emotional delicacy that makes it harder and harder to see them personified by only one person. It’s a forceful creation, this bipolared splitting of Bast, and one that flowers wildly and beautifully the deeper we go into the history of The Inheritance.
Another thread that most beautifully transcribes Howards End into this modern and complicated century is the moment we are given the phenomenal Hilton as the Ruth stand-in, Walter, the ignored husband of Henry Wilcox. It brings forth a pitch perfect portrayal of love emerging and being discarded by the powerful and wealthy Henry, played most elegantly and intelligently by the excellent John Benjamin Hickey (Broadway’s Six Degrees of Separation). Floating alongside, we have, once again, Federick embodying the form of the Young Walter and McCalley as the Young Henry, deepening the unfathomable attachment most majestically. Their love and bond is spiritual and heartbreaking. Hickey’s Henry doesn’t actually enter into the rectangle of truth until much later, but Eric Glass and Walter’s friendship, a beautiful recreation of Redgrave/Thompson’s Ruth and Margaret, finds form and depth with tense ease, even with Henry’s intense personage hanging over the emotionally touching connection long before he arrives.
In one of the most delicious re-imagining of the dinner scene straight from the Merchant/Ivory film, when Redgrave struggles to understand Margaret and her friend’s feisty involvement in the Suffrage movement, the internal bond between Eric and Walter seems to materialize organically within the political activism of Eric’s friends. Like Walter, Redgrave’s Ruth is unable to fully digest all these women’s political and intelligent view points, a predicament that strengthens her engagement to the kind Margaret, beautifully portrayed by Thompson. Lopez does this alignment a solid slice of justice with a gay oral history told passionately by a greek chorus of gay male friends at Eric’s 35th birthday party brunch (another 35th, just like the marvelous Miss Bobbie in Sondheilm’s Company that I saw in the same trip to London, and that will be gracing the Broadway stage this spring- Can Not Wait!). This discourse is full Camp, hitting hard and wide, even when not exactly as embracing of all relevant topics of the day and time, such as Prep, living with HIV, we the fellows never really finding a way to divest the old stereotypes that gay sex leads to death and disease. Lopez can get preachy and informative, in a way that feels unnecessary for half the crowd, but possibly very important for the others, like the young artistic Tucker, lovingly portrayed by Frederick who stands in for all the young gay men who have no clue. It is left up to Walter and ultimately Henry later on, to make these young men understand the agonies that his generation faced when AIDS and how the disease devastated a whole swath of their generation, a result that I personally know and carry as deeply and strongly as many others my age. “THERE ARE NO GAY MEN MY AGE. Not nearly enough.” states Henry, rightly so. It’s a thought that puts a huge lump in my throat every time that truism passes through my brain. It squeezes my heart, which is somewhere between grief and survivor guilt.
Finishing out Part I of The Inheritance, Lopez vividly propels into the theatrical space a dynamic destruction of the caring narrator, a device that served the first three acts so well and is sorely missed in Part II. The tears that flow just before each interval testify to the delicacy of the writing and poignancy of the truth that Lopez is trying to enlist. It sometimes feels manipulative, and sometimes the stereotypes of the gaggle of gay men that surround the four or five main characters grows tiresome and overplayed. But the depth of disappointment in Henry and his two sons (Burke, Harris) is magnificently inflamed with their decision to ignore Walter’s deathbed request and the imbalances of empathy and emotional thought are blatantly exposed. He throws forward the further collapse of our faith in humanity with the Hilary question, “Are you sure she’s going to win?” That scene, election night 2016, and other friendly interactions pile on the parallels between the superficial decadence of the modern gay man’s lifestyle of prosperity and the rigid class system of Edwardian England, stomping forth the complicated inequalities that define our own need for external validation and instant gratification. The social system, although less cleanly defined, still does just that, with Henry Wilcox as the billionaire gay Republican at one end, and the homeless rent boy addicted to crystal meth at the other, even with the thin thread of disavowed connection between the two coming up to the surface for a grasp of air. There is “a difference in morality“, Jasper (Harris) defiantly declares, but does wealth and privilege, sprouted forward quite remarkably by Wilcox at his brunch meeting with Eric’s friends, negate the advances of civil rights and the gay movements forward. Does this imbalance demolish the concept of equal opportunity for all, even those without a huge bank balance to buy their influence. Leo’s poverty rings true, but it’s really in Toby’s destruction of Morgan that decidedly brings Act I to an emotional close, in its beautiful writing and the cruel and ultimately deadly blow it brings to the narrator, Forster. And I can’t even discuss the last few moments. It floats in, and even when prepared, still demolishes my heart and senses.
After the break, I was thrilled beyond belief to arrive back at the theatre for Part II, even after the tearful spots of trouble I found myself in throughout Part I. Morgan is gone, for the most part, and the meaninglessness of faux art and Fire Island Pine partying is all the rage. Civil rights have advanced, far beyond the closeted Forster’s era, but troubles remain as clear and disconcerting as ever, with friendships fracturing, partnerships dissolving, and the abandonment of one another being the biggest disease of the modern gay man. The rectangle of community rises and falls, going from communal table to dance floor to graveyard memorial, as the pack finds themselves fighting for our nature’s soul, leading us to a ghostlike apparition that digs deep into our heart and breaks all resistance down. Troy makes his re-entrance in style (“Did you miss me?) dragging the beautiful, tender, and damaged Leo down a beach boardwalk to destruction, crashing a wedding and himself in that order. “Who said anything about falling in love?” is the phrase of the sun drenched blue dance party. Seeing the fall-out from a far, I didn’t see the blessed twist that waits for Leo. His winged creative flight is as satisfying and scary as they come, but it’s his engagement with the returning Morgan in the fifth act that makes an appointment with heartbreak. Their are no role models for being gay men anymore, no one to pass down the inheritance of history or the bitter inheritance of death and destruction. The responsibility of gay men to care for one another is what has not been taught or learned. It’s only when Eric removes his high end dress shoes and returns, that salvation in the care of the house that forever truly belonged to Eric is emotionally transfixed, long before any of us are even aware how perfect a fit it all is.
It also ushers in the magnificent Lois Smith (PH’s Marjorie Prime) who has taken over the position from the honorable Vanessa Redgrave (Broadway’s The Year of Magical Thinking) as Howard’s End caretaker Margaret. Margaret’s story is brutal and throughly engaging, traversing all that is at stake in The Inheritance. It’s a ‘passing-down’ moment, an Inheritance of history, love, pain, and connectivity with the likes of Forster and Kushner, neatly encompassing all the themes of community, engagement, and art, dysfunction and alignment of love and care. “You’ve seen them too” she says to Eric, and In those moments of connection, the play acknowledges all and more that can be said of the young men whose lives have been unnecessarily interrupted, arriving at this house with their complicated and tragic need for salvation. It’s heartbreakingly haunting, as we struggle to retain what its like to be hopeful.
The performances, even the over exaggerated, revel in the brittle difficulty of this modern age, finding truth and togetherness against the force of humanity and this difficult time we find ourselves in. “How much do I matter?” is where the power and thought-provoking center lives. Surrounded by ghosts of men who were lost before their time, The Inheritance is guaranteed to bring forth the tears, even when put off a bit here and there with its overly simplistic dive into crystal meth, sexual addiction, and exploration. That tale is a complicated one, clinging to our flesh like unwanted bacteria, but its also an important invader that must be rectified in order for our community to come together. “Heal or Burn“, states a desperate Toby. It’s a rally cry that’s as important as any.
Forster’s Howards End, much like his Maurice, is gorgeous and deep, and as told in the beloved Merchant/Ivory film and reformulated into this epic masterpiece, The Inheritance by Lopez delivers on so many levels of observation and deconstruction in class structure and sociopolitical decrees that it is a wonder that it works as well as it does. Lopez finds his way through these themes and constructs them all most delicately and compassionately into a different time and place while holding true to the questions the story raises. It plays on Forster’s Maurice and the gay civil rights movement with clarity and sweet charm, developing ideas of prosperity and privilege that impact our fearlessness and pride.
It is an exhausting and exhilarating way to spend a day in the theatre, whether is it in London’s West End at the Noël Coward Theatre after it transferred successfully from the Young Vic, or on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. The journey is well intended, containing truths that need to be told and a message to all to try to do better. The ending struggled to enter my soul as much as the rest of this long “400 page” play that seems to be co-created by its ancestors and the triumphant. They speak of a future that we know nothing about, one that feels too rosy and optimistic, especially with all the dreadful realness of the world that we see around us, where the Orange Monster still holds on to power and “faggot” is still a hostile and purposeful snarl. I hope they are right, though, and the difficulty for me to see brightness and clarity in our collective future is misguided. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.