Review by Elyse Trevers
Just a few weeks after watching and cheering at the NYC marathon, I sat and witnessed a theatrical marathon of sorts, the 61/2 hour The Inheritance by Matthew Lopez and it was well worth it. By the end, I wasn’t tired; in fact, I felt satisfied and slightly exhilarated.
The play starts with several young men, would-be writers, seated on a platform that covers most of the stage. When an older man enters, (writer E.M. Forster referred to as Morgan in the play) he helps them to generate ideas. Lopez’s script, which reads over 350 pages, is filled with dry humor and insight. Young Man 1 doesn’t know how to begin his work and Morgan notes that “a writer’s most valuable tool – procrastination.” Forster serves as an inspiration and a spiritual and literary guide, His famous work, Howard’s End begins with Helen’s letters and using that idea, Young Man 1 begins his work by listening voice mails from Toby.
Forster (well-played by Paul Hilton) is a stodgy, staid character dressed in a dark suit, who connects with the young men. Later Hilton also portrays Walter who gives background about AIDS and the history of homosexuals. Walter explains to Eric (Kyle Soller) how he and his partner Henry, fled the disease-ridden city, buying a house three hours north to avoid AIDS ravaging their friends.
Later, when Walter returns to the city, he meets a friend who is dying alone because he is ill, and so Walter brings him to the house where he cares for him until he dies. Hilton is wonderful as Walter, a role model for the young men, a lover and nurturer. The audience sees no AIDS victim but through Lopez’s skillful descriptions, the images are very moving and touching.
Although the action focuses on four young men and two older ones, their stories span decades and two of the characters, Walter (Hilton) and Eric seem to bridge the generations. The two men bond and after his death, Eric accepts Walter’s legacy.
Times have changed and AIDS is now treatable, but the specter of the disease hangs over the characters in The Inheritance. 89- year- old Lois Smith is especially poignant and powerful as the mother of a victim. She does a 15-minute monologue about casting her son aside when he revealed that he was gay, only reuniting with him hours before his death. Smith, a stage veteran, is the only woman in the show and has great delivery. Her character is a reminder of the carnage AIDS left behind and the impact on the families by the disease. If the audience didn’t feel emotionally invested before her appearance, it , undoubtedly, felt tearful upon listening to her.
The play, masterful and current, casts a glance backwards as it recalls history and the struggle of homosexuals who had to hide their sexuality. Today, gay people can live openly together and even marry. In fact, a couple of Eric and Toby’s friends marry and have children through the course of the play.
Politics has a very definite role in Lopez’s play. It’s 2016 and the group gathers around the TV to watch the election returns, sure that Clinton will become president. The chilling realization that she lost casts a pall upon the men and leads to later events. More disturbing is the decision of Eric’s friend Tristan, the doctor, who has decided to move to Canada. As a gay Black gay man with HIV, he feels there is no future for him in the US. “We spent the last eight years pretending we were a better nation than we are. But then Charlottesville happened. And then Puerto Rico. And then Las Vegas. This year has broken my heart. It’s stripped away all our fantasies about ourselves and shown us who we really are.”
There’s male nudity and explicit descriptions of raunchy sexual behavior, but it’s not titillating. In fact, it’s disturbing, depressing and desperate. Toby’s adventures during the summer getaways are a frenzy of drugs and sex, but sadly without love.
The performances are quite strong with several characters recreating the award-winning roles they played in England. Kyle Soller as Eric Glass gives a warm, earnest and gentle portrayal of a man seeking love. Frenetic and vibrant, Andrew Burlap is Toby, his former lover. Toby is a young man given to destructive behavior to mask all his doubts and insecurities.
John Benjamin Hickey gives his usual steady performance as Henry and is half of the older couple. Despite living through the tumultuous times, he is money- motivated and seems cold and callous. In fact, the Young Men are mortified to learn that he donated money to the Republican party. Making his Broadway debut, Samuel H. Levine plays two different roles. He is Adam, a young actor, with whom Toby falls in love. Levine also plays Leo, a young male prostitute who so strongly resembles Adam that Toby begins a relationship with him. Levine is more credible as Adam but neither of the characterizations is sympathetic.
The staging in Act One is striking and simple with design by Bob Crowley. Sometimes performers stand in front of the platform, but most of the action occurs on the platform. While performers act, the others in the ensemble sit around the stage as if guests at a table.
Comparisons of The Inheritance to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America are inevitable since the plays are similar in length and deal with homosexual issues. Whereas Angels dealt with some actual historical personalities and the impact of AIDS, The Inheritance deals with how the past has impacted the present and future and the future.
The Inheritance won honors and awards in London and will, undoubtedly, win over critics in the US as well. The play won 2019 The Olivier Award for Best New Play and
Stephen Daldry won the Olivier for his direction of “The Inheritance,” and Kyle Soller won for best actor for his performance in the play.
One of the catchphrases of the women’s movement acknowledges those who were trailblazers, using the slogan “Standing On Their Shoulders” and this is phrase is also one of the messages of The Inheritance. Some of the themes are frightening, yet they are also hopeful. While the play is didactic, it is inspirational at the same time. The audience begins to care about the characters and their pain. “The Inheritance” is a beautiful moving piece of theater that lingers with the audience and the 6 and 1/2 hour running time was a day well-spent.