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A CurtainUp ReviewThe Inheritance, Part One & Part Two
Advertised as "winner of more best play' awards than any other play in West End history," The Inheritance is a new drama by youthful American dramatist Matthew Lopez. This presentation offers New York audiences most of the elements that drew praise last year on the other side of the Atlantic — Stephen Daldry's skillful direction, Bob Crowley's spare, handsome scenic design, and the principals of a superb 15-member cast. What's most noteworthy about The Inheritance, however, is Lopez's ambitious script.
The two parts of The Inheritance (each requiring a separate ticket) run an aggregate six and a half hours. Hardy souls are able to elect a single-day marathon, with matinee at 1 p.m. and evening performance at 7 p.m. Less intrepid theater-goers may spread the experience over two evenings.
Lopez is a Florida native whose plays, most notably The Legend of Georgia McBride (review) and The Whipping Man( review), have been seen Off-Broadway and around the United States. The Inheritance, his first Broadway outing, is a story of New York City, where Lopez has lived for several years. It concerns, among many other things, the continuing impact on the city and the nation of the AIDs epidemic.
Inspired to some extent by E.M. Forster's 1910 novel Howard's End, The Inheritance depicts a coterie of gay men living in Manhattan between summer 2015 and spring 2018. The engrossing plot unfolds against a backdrop of the rancid-toned Trump-Clinton presidential race and the country's awkward transition from the Obama era to the present day of Trump. Off-stage events include the Women's March that followed the Trump inaugural and the Unite the Right rally of August 2017, which resulted in the violent killing of Virginia civil-rights activist Heather Heyer.
At the play's center are two couples: Gen-Xers Eric Glass (Kyle Soller) and Toby Darling (Andrew Burnap) and boomers Walter Poole (Paul Hilton) and Henry Wilcox (John Benjamin Hickey). This long saga includes break-ups, infidelities, and newfound acquaintances; consequently, the romantic configurations change as fluidly as partners in Paul Taylor choreography.
It's impossible to overstress the quality of the acting here. Soller is low-key as the kind, deeply moral Glass, who thinks "of himself — in all things and in all ways — as painfully ordinary." Glass turns out to be extraordinary (and almost saintly), but only after his all-consuming romance with the grandiose Toby, a YA-fiction writer who fancies himself the new Salinger, comes to an end. Toby's descent into drug-fueled lunacy is almost too extreme to believe, but Burnap's performance is credible and creditable from beginning to hideous end.
Henry Wilcox, played by Broadway veteran Hickey, represents the country's economic top one-percent. Wilcox (who shares his name with one of the principal characters of Howard's End) is an alpha male who survived the AIDS epidemic by concentrating on business and limiting his association with the social aspects of the gay community. Having married as a young urban professional, Henry has two sons and has long been a widower.
Lopez's script doesn't develop fully Henry's relationship with Walter, and that relationship ends before the end of Part One, but Hickey and Hilton supply a robust verisimilitude to the limited exchanges Lopez gives them. Among the play's new loves and passing fancies are Adam and Leo (both played with aplomb and subtle differentiation by Samuel H. Levine).
Wandering in and out of the proceedings is "Morgan," the spirit of E.M. Forster (also played by Hilton), who opines sagely on writing and other matters, provides occasional narration. He makes the essential point that, though the world has altered over the century since publication of Howard's End, human nature remains the same. "Your lives may be different. But surely the feelings are the same," he says. "Hearts still love, don't they? And break. Hope, fear, jealousy, desire. … the difference is merely setting, context, costumes. But those are just details."
The performance audiences are likely to remember most vividly comes at the end of Part Two. New York stage veteran Lois Smith is the sole woman in the cast; and Lopez has given her the most striking monologue in a play noteworthy for its monologues. It would be unfair to reveal how this character fits into the story, but there's no harm in saying that, if Soller's Eric is the conscience of the tale, Smith's Margaret is its heart.
The Inheritance, like its literary model, is a "state of the nation" work. Forster examined the impact of urbanization and a burgeoning middle class on a country that, only a century before, had been economically agrarian with little opportunity for social mobility. The middle-class home which lends its name as the novel's title is a symbol of a new reality in which titles and fortunes based on inherited land play a diminishing role, replaced to a significant degree by a self-made bourgeoisie. Forster asks what responsibility members of that increasingly important class have toward their fellow citizens in a society where noblesse oblige has been undermined by the decline of the nobility.
In The Inheritance, Lopez looks at how Americans live now through the lens of the New York gay-male bourgeoisie. The protagonist, Eric, asks: "What [is] the responsibility between gay men from one generation to another?" But that question isn't reasonably limited to a single sector; and it would be grossly unfair to shackle The Inheritance with a simplistic label such as "new gay play." The playwright is grappling with universal issues regarding what it means to be part of a family, a clique, a neighborhood, a municipality, and even of society at large.
Lopez has written many dramatically charged scenes, but long passages of his script are discursive, with players narrating more than they act. That's usually a recipe for boredom; but both Lopez and the cast handle all that talk with aplomb (assisted, of course, by Daldry's high-velocity direction).
In bringing The Inheritance home to New York, the Young Vic and its lead producing partners have situated it in the playhouse where Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire proved revelatory to audiences 72 years ago. Time will tell whether audiences will spend the money and time required by such a formidable work (and whether the more conservative among them will tolerate the amount of vivid sex talk involved). It's not a foregone conclusion that this mammoth production can recoup the investment of the 50 producers named above the play's title (plus the uncredited angels providing smaller sums). Whatever the degree of its economic success, however, The Inheritance marks Lopez as a prominent part of 21st-century American theater.
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The Inheritance, Part One & Part Two by Matthew Lopez Inspired by Howard's End by E.M. Forster Directed by Stephen Daldry Designed by Bob Crowley Cast: Jordan Barbour (Young Man 6/Tristan), Ryan M. Buggle (Boy), Jonathan Burke (Young Man 5/Toby's Agent/Charles Wilcox), Andrew Burnap (Toby Darling), Darryl Gene Daughtry, Jr. (Young Man 2/Jason #1/Toby's Doorman/Agent), Dylan Frederick (Young Man 4/Young Walter/Tucker), Kyle Harris (Young Man 7/Jasper/Paul Wilcox), John Benjamin Hickey (Henry Wilcox), Paul Hilton (Morgan/Walter Poole), Samuel H. Levine (Adam/Leo), Carson McCalley (Young Man 3/Young Henry), Tre Ryder (Boy), Lois Smith (Margaret), Kyle Soller (Eric Glass), and Arturo Luis Soria (Young Man 8/Jason #2/Clinic Worker) Scenic and Costume Design by Bob Crowley Lighting Design by Jon Clark Sound Design by Paul Arditti & Christopher Reid Original Music by Paul Englishby Production Stage Manager: Jill Cordle Running Time: Part One runs approximately three hours and 15 minutes, with two intermission; Part Two runs approximately three hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission and a brief pause Ethel Barrymore Theatre (243 West 47th Street) Opened 11/17/19; Reviewed by Charles Wright at 11/09/2019 press preview
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