Entertainment » Theatre

Much-hyped 'The Inheritance' Dazzles in Broadway Production

by Frank J. Avella
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Dec 10, 2019
Samuel H. Levine, Kyle Soller and Andrew Burnap in "The Inheritance," currently on Broadway
Samuel H. Levine, Kyle Soller and Andrew Burnap in "The Inheritance," currently on Broadway  (Source:Matthew Murphy)

E.M. Forster is considered to be one of the greatest English novelists of the 20th century. His works include "A Room with a View," "A Passage to India," "Howards End" and, seminal to the queer community, "Maurice." (Three out of four of these were turned into exquisite Merchant/Ivory films.) Forster, himself, was gay but never out in his lifetime (except to close friends) and he wouldn't allow the publication of "Maurice" until a year after his death in 1971, even though a first draft was completed more than 50 years earlier.

Playwright Matthew Lopez ("The Whipping Man," "The Legend of Georgia McBride") takes Forster to task (well, his characters do) in his six-hour-plus, sprawling, ambitious and exciting 'event' play, "The Inheritance," now dazzling audiences at the Barrymore Theater.

"Just imagine what would have happened if you had published a gay novel in your lifetime! You might have toppled mountains. You might have even saved lives. But you didn't do that."

These are the damning words spoken by the delicious firecracker of a character, Toby Darling (Andrew Burnap) as he, and several other young men, chastise Forster for his sins of staying in the closet and his fears involved in allowing the public access to "Maurice."

Truth to be told, Stonewall had just happened a year earlier and the American Psychiatric Association would not depathologize homosexuality until 1973. It's quite possible Forster would not have been able to find a publisher willing to take on a novel with such brazen gay content in those 50 years. Forster's living his life in the shadows and how his coming out publicly might have changed history and actually helped other queer people is a different story and at the heart of Lopez's epic work.

"The Inheritance" arrives on Broadway with much hype and hope (rave reviews and the Olivier Award for Best Play). I am one of the lucky ones who experienced the very last West End performance in London eleven months ago. It was a magical experience; one you tell yourself you'll never forget. And seeing the luminous Vanessa Redgrave added to the transcendent feeling.

The Broadway transfer comes with some script tweaks and alterations and a recasting of the chorus of young men (the five main male characters survived the transfer), as well as Lois Smith stepping in for Redgrave.

This production, directed with masterful efficiency and decided swiftness by Stephen Daldry, remains, for the most part, the same powerful, contemplative and haunting stage experience — despite the fact that I became more aware of Lopez's penchant for repetition as well as his sometimes didactic and seemingly self-important approach, as well as a wholly unnecessary sequence near the show's end.


Lois Smith and Samuel H. Levine  (Source:Matthew Murphy)

The play begins with a group of young men gathered around a platform that resembled a large table (The Last Supper came to mind more than once) to help tell a story. Enter E.M. Forster (an absorbing Paul Hilton), Morgan to his friends, who is coaxed into aiding in this mammoth task — appropriate enough because the plot and characters of "Howards End" will play a large role in the saga.

As these young men "create" their story, we meet a thirtysomething couple, the cautious and self-described "painfully ordinary," Yale law grad Eric Glass (Kyle Soller, piercingly good) and his arrogant, dynamic, buoyant bf, Toby Darling, a writer and status seeker extraordinaire. How this vinegar and oil duo hooked up and remained together for eight years is one of the play's conundrum challenges (that it meets and mostly satisfies).

Problems in the already problematic relationship arise when Eric asks Toby to marry him and Toby crushes on a privileged snob of an actor, Adam McDowell (Samuel H. Levine), who seems to semi-string both guys along. Note: the relationship between Eric and Toby, while committed and highly sexual, is also not monogamous.

While Toby is away previewing his new play (allegedly based on his life, but a complete falsehood) and pining for Adam, Eric gets close to an older neighbor, Walter (also played by Hilton) whose partner, a billionaire real estate magnate named Henry Wilcox (a focused and pitch-perfect John Benjamin Hickey), is out of town. It is through the friendship between Eric and Walter that we learn about an upstate New York farmhouse and how it once housed gay men dying of AIDS. The story of this home and Walter and Henry's relationship will play a significant and shattering role in the rest of the play.

I should mention one final important character, a poor, soft-spoken hustler named Leo (Levine, in a brave turn) who is Adam's doppelgänger (obvi) and whom Toby forms his own bond with (after he is kicked to the curb by Adam).


Samuel H. Levine and Andrew Burnap  (Source:Matthew Murphy)

I will cease more plot speak because I don't want to ruin the many curious twists and tragic turns the play offers. I will say that fans of "Howards End"—the novel and film—will enjoy figuring out who is who and what is what and where Lopez deviates for his own dramatic purposes. I will also add that the part one climax is emotionally devastating.

In addition to "Howards End," one must acknowledge a hat tip (if not a full bow) to Tony Kushner's masterpiece, "Angels in America," for many reasons, including the play's scope and aspirations. In addition, there are nods to many other literary and stage works including "Boys in the Band," "Gatz," and even "Into the Woods."

"The Inheritance" is chock full of snappy and snippy dialogue—especially when the young men gather for a party or to commiserate on election night. (Kyle Harris is a standout as Eric's unforgiving leftist friend). And Lopez blends these savvy moments with what he himself refers to as his use of "unapologetic literary writing to create theatrical language." The mix works more than not, although there are a few overlong storytelling monologues that could have benefitted from some ruthless editing.

Lopez takes on no less than half a century of gay history and has fascinating things to say about the pre-and-post Stonewall generations as well as the pre-and-post AIDS crisis gays as well as the importance of community and the notion of "inheriting" queer history. Some themes receive more exploration than others and the play can be downright meta in many respects including the reception of Toby's play since his character may be based, in part, on Lopez himself. (The author has said in interviews that there are things in the play based on his experiences but he doesn't feel the necessity to point out exactly what.)

Class and race enter into the conversation, the latter less than the former. There are current cultural references galore (one hilarious bit involving Meryl Streep). And there is graphic sexual talk but it is staged in a rather puritanical manner.

The actors mostly rise to the demanding challenges of the script with diverse casting among the young men as well as the casting of two ridiculously pretty twinks as the young Walter and Henry (Dylan Frederick and Carson McCalley, respectively).

The most compelling character, by far, is Toby Darling and in the role Andrew Burnap, as he did in London, electrifies in a fearless and risky performance that is revelatory, brimming with sexual energy, condescending arrogance, and heartbreaking self-sabotage. Toby is a deeply-wounded soul and Burnap manages to unearth nuances that allow for both sympathy and empathy, especially once his backstory is revealed. He's reminiscent of a young Billy Crudup.

The lone female, Lois Smith, provides her own gravitas at the play's end — but I did miss Redgrave.

What "The Inheritance" does brilliantly is invoking the lost generation of gay souls — the legion of promising young men cut down before they had an opportunity to grow, to bloom — a generation decimated by a nefarious disease. And a culture that was culpable in allowing it to go on.

The play also taps into the frustration and elation involved in the creative process itself, challenging accepted notions about storytelling and vehemently arguing about the importance of queer storytelling and how vital it is to the LGBTQ community.

"The Inheritance" is currently playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, 243 W. 47th St., Manhattan; 212-239-6200, theinheritanceplay.com. Running time, Part I: 3 hours, 15 minutes. Running time, Part II: 3 hours, 10 minutes. For more information, visit the show's website.


Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He is also a proud Dramatists Guild member and a recipient of a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship. He was awarded a 2015 Fellowship Award from the NJ State Council on the Arts, the 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and the Chesley/Bumbalo Foundation Playwright Award for his play Consent, which was also a 2012 semifinalist for the O'Neill. His play, Vatican Falls, took part in the 2017 Planet Connections Festivity and Frank was nominated for Outstanding Playwriting. Lured was a semifinalist for the 2018 O'Neill and received a 2018 Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation Grant. Lured will premiere in 2018 in NYC and 2019 in Rome, Italy. LuredThePlay.com


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