Review: "The Inheritance" Is the Gay Theater Event of the Year

There's ample small talk in this marathon, two-part epic, but also keen insight into modern gay life.

After interviewing costar John Benjamin Hickey, I caught Matthew Lopez’s two-part The Inheritance all in one day, and was so wowed by its unwieldy brilliance that my butt didn’t even hurt. The show is primarily performed on a bare platform stage, around which various male actors are positioned, to narrate or react, like witnesses or sometimes ghosts. (The first part ends with a haunting procession that I won’t reveal, though it’s reminiscent of something in the movie Longtime Companion.) Various gay classics are nodded to throughout the evening, and at first, the play feels like a big homage to Boys in the Band, with all the banter, campy references, and fear of aging. I was glad when it went beyond the smart talk into more soulful exchanges and a strong narrative.

As the play adapts E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End to a contemporary gay milieu, plots involve manic social climbing, unrequited love, respecting the past, sugarcoating harsh truths, and giving up activism to sleep with the enemy, as the various characters influence each other in a way that forms the elaborate novel being played out on the stage. There’s Toby Darling (Andrew Burnap), an author who wants to make it big in the Hamptons and whose book is turned into a play, though it’s mainly a hit because of the performance of an actor he’s unreasonably hot for. Toby’s boyfriend, Eric Glass (Kyle Soller), calls Toby a fraud, but he’s obviously projecting, and both characters have a lot to learn as they end up in elaborate plotlines involving gay Republican Henry Wilcox (Hickey) and a damaged sex worker (Samuel H. Levine).

There’s a lot of sex and raunchy talk, and one scene has highly choreographed hormonal activity without actual touching, a real coup de theatre. In fact, everything imaginable about modern gay life seems to be tossed into this saucy stew, including Cole Porter, The Wizard of Oz, Stonewall, Bayard Rustin, Sylvia Rivera, Edie Windsor, Pulse, Musical Mondays at Splash, and “Yas, queen,” not to mention Fire Island, crystal meth, Coachella, and Mamma Mia!, plus New York references like Bushwick, the Next Wave Festival, Peter Luger Steak House, the Strand bookstore, and Film Forum. And fingering and rimming! And there are jokes about really long plays, too!

Matthew Murphy

The cast of The Inheritance.

To cement the nod to Angels in America, there’s a black medical worker (a very good Jordan Barbour) who is irresistibly sassy and savvy, another character running around in angel wings, and lots of debating about the devastation of AIDS and the inadequate response to it. In part two, Hillary Clinton has lost the Presidential election and some awful unnamed candidate has won. The rotten Trump agenda hangs in the air as characters grasp for survival and self-respect, while the messages of the dead are alternately heeded and ignored.

In the cast, Kyle Soller is great as Eric Glass, who takes a moral step backward, then evolves into compassion and do-goodiness. (It’s basically the Emma Thompson role in the Howard’s End movie, but without the tasteful PG rating). The magnetic Burnap is a breakout star as the doomed and problematic Toby, always seeming on the verge of a breakdown. Hickey, as I said, is terrific as the rich realtor who’s closed himself off to emotion and who probably orgasms over tax breaks. Acting legend Lois Smith scores towards the end as a lady who’s tended to 200 dying AIDS patients (including her own son) at the crucial piece of real estate of the title, though her monologue could certainly be trimmed along with the cherry tree.

Paul Hilton is fine as Morgan, the character based on E.M. Forster—who’s called out for being closeted—and also as Hickey’s longtime boyfriend, who relays a monologue about the surreal ravages of AIDS, back when it seemed like everyone was being felled. Levine does powerfully with a monologue detailing the rush of having anonymous bathhouse sex (though I found it hard to believe his character took so long to orgasm). Alas, the same actor is too dully mopey as the sex worker looking for love and finding his way into the lives of the other male leads, though the character basically seems like a construct designed as a catalyst for those three others. A campy Hispanic queen (Arturo Luis Soria) is way overdone and seems like a nod to Emory in Boys in the Band. And the whole play could surely be edited en route to its sentimental windup.

But The Inheritance’s too-muchness becomes one of its most endearing traits, and despite flaws, there are flourishes galore, this emerging as the gay theatrical event of the year. Lopez is a gorgeous, bold writer and his work is accorded an energetic production that’s vividly directed by Stephen Daldry. So much death and despair linger by the end of the long work, but there’s a sense of renewal and learning that propels it all into the future. Yas, queens.