‘The Inheritance’ on Broadway: an epic story of gay ghosts, for good and bad
The Daily Beast
November 18, 2019
One of the buzziest plays on Broadway, ‘The Inheritance’ spins epically and soapily through time to tell a powerful, if flawed, story about the power of LGBTQ history and healing.
At the end of the first part of The Inheritance, the snuffling of audience members became very audible. (Warning: Spoilers follow.)
The reason: Down both aisles, and amassing on stage, were actors playing the ghosts of gay men who died of AIDS when that pandemic was at its most destructive and deadly.
It is intended as a striking visual moment, just like the appearance of the angel in Angels in America—the play whose name floats on the Broadway breeze on which The Inheritance (which opened Sunday night at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, to March 1, 2020) has landed in town. It is buoyed by glowing reviews and awards from London, and much excitement, particularly those expecting something Angels-ish in scope and ambition.
But something about that particular moment jarred as soon as it started unfolding. I had seen something very similar before.
This six-and-a-half-hour, two-part drama can be watched—like Angels—in two performances in one day (with dinner break, my recommendation) or broken up according to your schedule. It is inspired by E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel, Howards End. They share some character names and plot tropes: Most significantly, they see a special house as a site of redemption and hope, a place of both catharsis and renewal.
The play is about property, physical and personal; who and what we inherit; what gay men have inherited from their own personal pasts; and what they could—if they so wish—inherit from LGBTQ history.
At the end of part one, the ghosts were gathering at the upstate New York home where one of the characters, Walter Poole (the excellent Paul Hilton; his supremely acute performances as Walter and Forster anchor the show), had cared for them when they were dying men. Now at the house was modern gay thirtysomething Eric Glass (Kyle Soller), incredibly moved and happy to see the spirits. How he had ended up there, and what that meant, adds other layers to the show’s title.
This was a spiritual, imagined re-communion between gay generations: pain, empathy, peace, understanding, connectivity, and yes, another meaning of “inheritance.” The snuffles got louder.
This audience member’s eyes stayed dry, because the scene was too loud an echo—or to be blunt, a repeat—of the end of Longtime Companion (1990), the first movie that went on wide release about AIDS. At the end of Longtime Companion, the ghosts of gay men who have died of AIDS amass on the beach where the still-living characters are taking a walk to the tune of Zane Campbell’s “Post Mortem Bar.”
Here, they are not the thin, wasted men who died of a terrible disease—neglected and stigmatized by governments and those in power. They are, like the men-ghosts on stage in The Inheritance, restored to their handsome, laughing, full life.
It seemed so odd to see this memorable visual recycled for the stage in another production entirely. You could make the argument that Longtime Companion is almost 30 years old. Perhaps The Inheritance playwright Matthew Lopez and director Stephen Daldry were not aware of it, and its famous final scene. But it is such a noted gay-themed, AIDS-themed movie, that it seems odd, especially when The Inheritance shares a similar thematic canvas.
And then there is The Inheritance’s significant message that we LGBTQ people should pay heed to our history and respect, and take on the torches of those who came and who fought before us. If Lopez, or indeed anyone working on The Inheritance, didn’t recognize this replication, or has never seen Longtime Companion (or didn’t think to at least namecheck it), then it highlights one of the elements of generational ignorance the play itself is concerned with.
The Inheritance proposes that gay men in their thirties and younger, if ignorant of recent and distant gay history, have much to gain from learning about it all.
To some degree, The Inheritance is the equivalent of a history lesson, and a morally necessary one. By harking back to that terrible time, the young men of The Inheritance, or at least Eric Glass, will—The Inheritance posits—hopefully learn something about responsibility, both personal and collective, and about caring for each other today.
It is a sterling message, and sometimes sharply and brilliantly realized on stage, and sometimes not. The Daily Beast’s Kevin Fallon and I left The Inheritance feeling both impressed and irritated, moved for sure and also as if the play had been a little oversold; a set of genuinely conflicting feelings.
The play’s set by Bob Crowley is an adaptable small arena: a raised platform that can also be a submerged platform. At the back of the stage, later, we see miniature vistas of Fire Island and a doll’s house, which Eric and the other characters treat as the real life-sized upstate house. Around the stage-upon-a-stage sit characters when they are not talking. They may interject, but they are an “audience” and chorus: We watch The Inheritance take shape as a story through these voices.
This is not a coming out play but a coming-to-terms one—a reckoning of the psychological and cultural residue LGBTQ people accumulate personally and collectively.
At the beginning, one character, played by Samuel H. Levine, is wrestling with how to present that story, while mulling the first line of Howard’s End itself. The sweep of the story sees Levine segue from rich kid to lust object to vain actor in one incarnation (Adam), and then a working-class, drug-addicted hustler who becomes a writer as another (Leo).
The Inheritance has a rigid approach to class. Bar Leo, the characters on stage are all middle and upper middle class (a significant twist surrounds one who is not). They brunch and party, and talk property and chat. When Leo is introduced to us, he is presented as a specimen, and a specimen to be saved at that. Adam ranges into view as a character to care about, then later bizarrely recedes.
This audience member expected to hear more from the chorus of men around the arena, but we do not. It seems at the beginning we are going to get to know this group of friends—there is the social justice entrepreneur (Jasper, played by Kyle Harris), Tristan (a doctor, played by Jordan Barbour), Jason 1 (a first-grade teacher, played by Darryl Gene Daughtry Jr.), happily coupled with Jason 2 (a high school science teacher played by Arturo Luís Soria).
They are given serious lines to deliver about race and identity, and also gorgeously sharp zingers, but they remain a constellation of friends (“lads”) who gossip and parry—but there seems to be little depth beneath that. This is fine when the play revels in its jokey asides and bitchiness but becomes a problem later when certain friendships fracture and you don’t care because the characters have never been fully developed as friends—and this in a play so concerned about friendship and the collective.
I kept thinking of the snappy, witty, judge-y, drunken, dark, sharp voices of The Boys in the Band and wished The Inheritance brought its side characters more alive and deepened their presence and reach, instead of keeping them principally as hawkish observers (or playing other characters). Perhaps Lopez wanted to stick close to the fancy-schmancy folks of Howard’s End as templates.
Oddly, a new boyfriend of one of theirs, Tucker (Dylan Frederick), airily steals an entire scene as a pretentious artist whose art the gang laps up.
The drama fixes first in the present day on Eric and partner Toby Darling (the brilliant Andrew Burnap; a firework of mischief, ego, long-buried personal pain, and impishness), an apartment (which is a family inheritance that Eric must occupy to keep), the sex they had (great, until marriage enters the coital chitter-chatter), and the mystery of who Toby is (not the glamorous golden boy his hit book, soon to be play, Loved Boy, suggests; his surname comes with a side-eye).
The play begins with humor and a set of voicemails Toby sends the night he is magnificently sick over Meryl Streep at a party hosted by Walter and partner Henry (John Benjamin Hickey) at their—yes—fabulous Hamptons property. We then hear pretty quickly about Toby and Eric’s “three-bedroom, two bathroom apartment with a terrace that overlooked the park on the 15th floor of an elegant pre-war building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.”
The reaction of Jason #2 to the news the apartment is $575 a month is “Fuck you,” and gets a huge roar of laughter and applause from New Yorkers who don’t share such good fortune.
Adam is the rich boy cherry on top of this status-focused bunch, whose mother, we hear, was heartbroken when he decided to go to Yale. “Yes, I’m sure that’s every mother’s nightmare,” notes Toby. Will Adam become part of a “throuple” with Toby and Eric? Sex and intimacy in the key relationships on stage come entwined with other things like ambition and financial security.
Walter watches the young men and their shenanigans, and delivers some beautifully piercing, pithy lines. He notes that his 36-year relationship with Henry comes down to “a succession of dinners.” Walter was the person Henry “was dancing with when the music stopped.” When Walter arrived in New York in the early 1980s, the Stonewall Bar had been turned into a Chinese restaurant. He smiled, went in, and had a meal there.
Henry is written broader and louder, a Trump-supporting capitalist who sees people as acquisitions. AIDS happened. Their place upstate became a hideaway and retreat from it until Walter turned it into a refuge, leading to a fundamental fracture between them.
A litany of names and conditions from that terrible time becomes the lyrical equivalent of a remorseless wheel turning: “Alex is dead. Colin is dead. Lucas is infected. Zach is dying from pneumocystis carinii.”
The play surfs through a number of hot-button topics, a series of top lines from LGBTQ life in 2019: barebacking, HIV prevention, Truvada, having children, getting married, what being LGBTQ means for some now (integration, equality, assimilation) versus then (a “secret club” and the appeal of that, even if legal and social persecution was more widespread), the totems of gay history, what camp means, what a diva is: “Liza’s not camp. Liza’s a diva. But Liza singing ‘Copacabana’ in a nightclub with the Muppets?” Well, as one character says, that’s camp.
The headline topics keep coming: anti-LGBTQ hatred, gay culture, the notion of community, gay men’s “responsibilities to our trans siblings,” poverty, HIV rates among gay men of color, addiction, suicide, and homelessness as endured by LGBTQ youth, the necessity of teaching young people about the heroes of the past: “Marsha Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Edie Windsor, Matthew Shepard, Islan Nettles, and the bravery of the people on the front lines of the epidemic.”
This is a bracing battery of subjects, and it is valuable to hear them vocalized, but they are merely said as if dutifully ticked off from a right-on roster. It is one thing to mention issues affecting trans people and LGBT people of color, but there are no trans characters on stage, and the people of color characters feel too subsidiary.
The play returns to its soapily entwined, rich, white chief quartet as time pivots from hope over a Hillary Clinton election win to the reality of the dawning Trump era, whose effect on American democracy Tristan—in a beautifully written passage—likens to HIV infecting a bloodstream. Tristan, as a black gay man, feels he must leave for Canada: “I ain’t drowning for this fucking country. I’m gonna be Kathy Bates, wrapped in my furs, watching the carnage from the safety of my lifeboat.”
Toby and Eric’s lives go through more revolutions: drugs, heartbreak, loss, success, and terrible tragedy swirl around them. Walter and Henry orbit their own past and present, as lovestruck young men and the detached couple they became.
The play also puts Forster on trial for not being brave enough to publish Maurice—his gay classic completed in 1914 and finally published in 1971—in his lifetime, and for not being out; Forster himself agrees with this drubbing.
But it is another weird historical oversight that the play doesn’t mention in Forster’s defense that homosexuality was against the law in Britain until 1967, just three years before his death in 1970, aged 91. Or that, as a Merchant Ivory movie in 1987, Maurice became a landmark gay-themed movie, when two men being intimate on screen—and being allowed to live happily ever after—was radical.
Still, Lopez interrogates all the characters. Henry is a Trump supporter, with two vicious, thuggish sons (beautifully played by Jonathan Burke and Kyle Harris), who immediately bring to mind Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. The play allows Henry to skewer liberal pieties. “When you say ‘we the people,’ Jasper, do you really mean that? Or do you mean ‘we the people who agree with me?’”
The play is clear-eyed enough to allow Jasper to respond: “You don’t give a fuck about our community or this nation because for a man like you, being gay is just a speed bump on your journey. You’ve arrived at your station in life without ever once understanding suffering or the meaning of adversity.”
Henry’s thundering, “THERE ARE NO GAY MEN MY AGE.” And then quieter: “Not nearly enough,” signals the character’s ineradicable pain around AIDS. The play doesn’t opt for an extended game of “OK boomer”; it wants to build bridges and find connections across gay generations, not mock the divides.
The Inheritance’s idea of total gay hedonism is Fire Island, and we adjourn there for a sequence about drugs, sex, and assorted personal demons. From Andrew Holleran’s Dancer From the Dance and Larry Kramer’s Faggots (both published in 1978) onward, this has been well-documented hard-partying territory.
If you want multiple sightings of that other gay pop-cultural familiar—hot guys in tight trunks, and a lot of skin—The Inheritance will not disappoint. (But its most memorable love scene is played clothed, and is farcically hilarious.)
Throughout, the play retains its own rigid snobbery, noting the markers of Eric’s newly acquired “grade-A” adulthood, thus: “One husband, one personal trainer, one pilates instructor, one favorite yoga instructor. One primary care physician, one dentist, one allergist. One townhouse in the West Village, one beach house in East Hampton, one 10-acre farmhouse upstate (empty, used for storage), one pied-à-terre in London (Mayfair), and one in Paris (the 11th Arrondissement).”
The play is not joking with this list; if you have any status anxiety or serious gay FOMO issues, get a stiff drink before watching The Inheritance. I wondered: Will straight people, or people who don’t know, think most gay men in New York generally live at this high-society, glossy level?
Well, we don’t, boo hoo. But the play seeks to tell a big LGBTQ story set square within such a realm, with no hinterland around it. Eric’s transparency is right there in his surname, Glass. His spiritual journey and embrace of past ghosts for future purpose, I know, should have felt more profound. To me, he felt oddly off-center in his own story, a glass bobbing along on whatever surface fate found for him.
My eyes were finally moistened by the only woman on stage. Margaret (the exquisite Lois Smith) plays a caretaker at the house upstate whose son died at the house in the 1980s.
Her speech is one of the play’s best and most affecting—maybe because it escapes the metafiction of the play, its knowing artifice, and instead just tells us the story of maternal separation, reconnection, tragedy, and catharsis. It is utterly human and felt, and like Vanessa Redgrave’s performance of it in London deserves its own award nominations.
All roads eventually lead to the doll’s house, this jewel upstate, with its tree in blossom and symbolic animal teeth of healing stuck in its bark. The Inheritance posits that this can become a new LGBTQ idyll in the 21st century: a place of recovery if necessary, help if needed, and community forever. “Only connect” was Forster’s famous instruction. The Inheritance moves that forward in its own way; as at the end of Angels its survivors, you hope, may find a new sense of community.
The shouts of “bravo” and applause at the performance I attended showed how affected the audience was by The Inheritance; it will almost certainly be nominated for similar laurels as it received in London. This critic didn’t feel the same fervency. The play’s big revelation is too hastily, and implausibly, resolved at the end. Eric’s reasons for doing what he ends up doing feel puzzling. Henry is written in a set of clashing registers.
And yet the play charts a path that its LGBTQ audience knows all too well in millions of different individual ways: a route that can encompass pain, rejection, the closet, and self-acceptance to searching for fulfillment, healing, purpose, and connection (if one is successful). It’s an imperfect path, and The Inheritance is also imperfect.
Perhaps those imperfections are also echoes, encapsulating so many contrary currents—personal, political, cultural—LGBTQ people live under today. We are seen as the lives and souls of the party, the funniest people in the room, yet our basic civil rights are under attack, our safety too often threatened, and our lives and equality treated as political leaders’ punching bags.
The Inheritance is a dramatic distillation of the strange set of living conditions LGBTQ people know all too well, across the generations. One character’s major moment of truth comes when he declares his real pain, rather than glamorized self-fabrication.
The Inheritance is big, it aims to be everything and say everything. For all its faults it gives its all to tell its stories, both big and small. It is about history and also love, but not of the romantic kind. In keeping with an earlier reference to the work and beliefs of the poet and activist Edward Carpenter, the love at the end of the play—the love The Inheritance wants its characters and us to aspire to—is fraternal and honoring.
One more important, much more basic thing: After almost seven hours in their company, I wanted to spend more time with its characters. Leaving the theater impressed and irritated is not just a set of genuinely conflicting feelings, it is also meant, finally, as very gay praise.