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Simply put, there may be no more timely – or thrilling -- play now on Broadway than Matthew Lopez’s “The Inheritance,” now at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Perhaps, if we all go, we can stop yelling “OK Boomer” and “Damn Millennials” at each other and begin bridging a generation gap that threatens to turn into an uncrossable chasm.
Its social message aside, Lopez’s riveting two-part examination of how America’s gay men do – and sadly, don’t – learn lessons from previous generations (as well as each other) is a feat of unexpected theatrical daring, passion and beauty. Inspired by the plots, themes and characters of closeted gay writer E.M. Forster’s “Howard’s End” (with Forster himself showing up as a spiritual guide named Morgan, stunningly portrayed by Paul Hilton), “The Inheritance” primarily concerns itself with a gaggle of young, seemingly like-minded gay men navigating everything from the results of the 2016 election to issues of class to the country’s ever-changing sexual and societal mores, with varying degrees of success.
Chief among them are Eric Glass (Olivier Award winner Kyle Soller in a beautifully understated performance), a 30something middle-class intellectual striving to find his true purpose in his life, and his boyfriend Toby Darling (the deliciously flamboyant Andrew Burnap, who manages to be simultaneously moving and melodramatic), a playwright grappling with the unexpected success of his present-day existence and the always-present demons of his past.
It’s not exactly a spoiler to say the pair break up – in spectacular, heartbreaking fashion – and move on to far more unusual relationships. Having made friends with his older, dying neighbor Walter Poole (Hilton, doubling nicely), Kyle eventually couples up with Walter’s longtime partner, the Republican billionaire Henry Wilcox (the superb John Benjamin Hickey), who gives him much-needed financial security but who is unable to truly offer the emotional support he really requires.
Meanwhile, Toby latches on, at least physically, to sweet-natured, financially destitute rent-boy Leo (Samuel H. Levine in a brave and brilliant Broadway debut), whom he initially hires because of his resemblance to Adam (also played by Levine), the cocky star of his play with whom he falls into unrequited love. Unfortunately, Toby – who is even more of a “lost boy” than Leo -- leads his lover into a life of drugs, alcohol and unprotected sex that threatens to forever alter both of their futures.
These developments are all just part of the vast tapestry that Lopez weaves, with the many characters connecting, interconnecting, re-connecting, and sometimes failing to connect until it’s almost too late. (As one of the men points out, Forster’s most famous literary line was “Only Connect.”) Yet, the idea that connection is always possible is beautifully exemplified late in the play when we meet Margaret (the invaluable Lois Smith), a now-elderly woman who tells Eric and Leo of her long estrangement from her son after he moved to New York in the 1980s to pursue a “homosexual lifestyle” before reconciling with the young man on his deathbed.
Margaret’s lengthy monologue is just one of the numerous aria-like speeches in the play, and each one, obviously crafted with great care and skill by Lopez, makes us sit back and listen deeply, a rarity in today’s theater. Still, even some of the shorter exchanges, like this one delivered early on by Morgan to one of the young men, speak directly to all of us: “Hearts still love, don’t they? And break. Hope, fear, jealousy, desire. Your lives may be different. But surely the feelings are the same. The difference is merely setting, context, costumes. But those are just details.”
Indeed, it’s language like this (as well as discovering the fates of the main characters) that should make you want to take in all six-and-a-half hours. True, there is a sense of completeness to the first part – thanks in large part to Stephen Daldry’s incredibly inspired if seemingly simple direction -- and audiences may feel some sense of diminishing returns towards the work’s end.
No matter. One should never squander an inheritance
By Brian Scott Lipton