Spread over two parts and running to more than seven hours of theatre, American playwright Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance, receiving its world premiere, documents the experiences of a generation of New York gay men who came of age in the years after Aids ravaged their community. It’s a play about the space in the world left by those lost men.
Comparisons with Angels in America are inevitable, but Lopez draws his primary inspiration from EM Forster’s Howards End. Lopez originally intended to write a more straightforward adaptation of the 1910 novel, albeit one set in the world of gay men, but over time it bloomed into something bigger.
Forster exists in the play as a watchful presence, helping a group of young men tell a story, while occasionally questioning their choices. The story being told is that of Eric Glass (Kyle Soller), his boyfriend, Toby Darling (Andrew Burnap) and their circle of friends. As in Forster’s novel, property and money are key influences in the decisions the characters make. This is also true here. Kind, idealistic lawyer Glass knows he will soon have to move out of his family’s rent controlled apartment, while Darling, who has just written his first novel and is adapting it for the stage, had a difficult upbringing and craves emotional and financial stability.
Their relationship is complicated by the arrival in their lives of charismatic young would-be actor Adam (Samuel H Levine) and Eric’s growing friendship with Walter, an older, ailing gay man who has been with his partner, Henry Wilcox, for 36 years. As in the novel, Wilcox is both stupendously wealthy – he’s a Republican, of course – and in possession of a country house which turns out to be far more than just another asset in his property portfolio: it’s a repository of souls, a place where, 30 years ago, ill, stigmatised and abandoned men went to receive care.
Lopez sticks pretty closely to Forster’s plot, only veering away from it in occasion (there’s a cum-drenched Czech bath house scene which definitely wasn’t in the original). Eric and Toby occupy more or less the same place in the narrative as the Schlegel sisters, Wilcox is Wilcox and the Leonard Bast character takes the form of Leo, a young rent boy (also played by Levine) who a lonely Toby invites home for sex one night.
The two parts of Stephen Daldry’s production operate in slightly different ways. The first half does the legwork, but it also contains some great, rich speeches into which the actors dive as if they were swimming pools. Paul Hilton, who plays Forster and Walter, and is wonderfully delicate and poignant as both, gets to deliver an extraordinary speech about being a gay man in the 1980s and watching his friends sicken, describing the fear people felt, the repulsion, and the impulse to flee. It movingly illustrates the huge emotional and social toll that Aids took on a generation.
‘You must face the past,” Forster implores the younger characters and that feels like Lopez’s key message; the necessity to remember what was fought for, what was lost and at what cost.
In the first part, Eric and Toby’s friends are part of the fabric of their lives and thus always present on stage. Bob Crowley’s set is essentially a large communal table around which they sit, watching whoever is in the spotlight.
In the second part, they are less present and Forster also retires himself from the narrative, for the story is not his, but not before one of the characters lambasts him for not being brave enough to publish Maurice in his lifetime. There’s a new resident in the White House too: the whole world has changed. The focus falls upon Toby’s decline and Eric’s burgeoning relationship with Henry, though this latter plot strand never quite convinces.
The cast is superb and the performances throughout are exquisitely pitched. It’s an incredible feat. Soller anchors the piece emotionally, he’s its heart, and Levine is a hoot as Adam while also successfully making Leo feel like more than just a one-note character, a figure to be pitied. Burnap ensures Toby is charismatic enough to stop him from being insufferable.
And what of Vanessa Redgrave? Her role is small and she doesn’t appear until near the end of the second part but she ‘Vanessa Redgraves’ the hell out of it: warm, wistful, someone who has made a peace of sorts with the choices they have made.
Privilege permeates the play. Leo aside, they are all accomplished, educated, and culturally literate, they are all comfortably off, to a greater or lesser extent, they all have honed bodies, and they exist in a world in which women are almost entirely absent.
On more than one occasion I was reminded of Hanya Yanaghhara’s A Little Life, a book that while glimmeringly written put its characters through the emotional mill and seemed to be on a mission to make its readers weep.
Does it need to be so long? Hell, no. But Lopez understands the narrative mechanisms of the best television. He keeps you hooked and Daldry and his cast, for the most part, make the narration-heavy piece come alive on stage. It has that compulsive Netflix quality that makes you want to keep firing up episode after episode – to travel with these men as their stories unfold.