By: Matthew Lopez
At: Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St., New York. Tickets: 800-447-7400 or TheInheritancePlay.com; $39-$349 per play. Runs through: March 1
Can gay writers born an ocean and nearly a century apart inspire and learn from each other? U.S. playwright Matthew Lopez passionately thinks so, and his two-part stage drama The Inheritance is an ambitious affirmation.
Lopez's gay opus recently opened on Broadway following its triumphant 2018 world-premiere run in London, scooping up multiple Best Play awards along the way. By taking the 1910 novel "Howards End" by closeted British writer E.M. Forster ( 1879-1970 ) as his inspiration, Lopez crafts The Inheritance into an expansive retelling of recent gay American history.
Lopez even conjures up Forster himself in the play as a storytelling guide named "Morgan" in The Inheritance. Morgan ( Forster's middle name ) provides encouragement to Lopez's modern gay American characters, who each are tested by the ongoing fallout of the deadly AIDS crisis and the shock of the 2016 elections.
The main relationship of The Inheritance is between an online social justice worker named Eric Glass ( Olivier Award-winner Kyle Soller ), and his hot-shot, social-climbing writer boyfriend, Toby Darling ( Andrew Burnap ). With marriage on the horizon, all seems initially well for this happy New York couple in their 30s.
The lacking-in-self-confidence character of Eric sticks closest to the plot mechanics of Howards End. Like the Margaret Schlegel character ( which won Emma Thompson a Best Actress Academy Award for the 1992 Merchant-Ivory film version ), Eric becomes enamored of a contested country house that the audience knows should rightfully belong to him.
Toby is more of a contemporary creature. He's on the cusp of an artistically fulfilling writing career as he adapts his young adult gay novel, "Loved Boy," into a play. But Toby also suppresses a traumatic childhood by telling lies about himself and getting into embarrassing situations.
For instance, Toby shares a story of drinking too much at a modernistic Hamptons home owned by gay Republican billionaire Henry Wilcox ( John Benjamin Hickey ) and his rather saintly longtime companion, Walter Poole ( Paul Hilton, who also doubles as Morgan ).
Later Toby develops an obsession with a handsome young actor named Adam McDowell ( Samuel H. Levine ). Toby's fascination turns dangerous for a near doppelganger of Adam, a male hustler named Leo ( also played by Levine ), who falls under Toby's destructive thrall.
Lopez also touches upon class inequities, political divisions and cultural appropriation to give extra relevancy to The Inheritance. It emerges as a moving and redemptive tale of a chain of gay lovers who connect, separate and questionably recouple.
With so much to explore, Lopez unapologetically takes his sweet time over the course of a six-and-a-half hour running time divided into two plays with two intermissions apiece. The Inheritance has weight dramatically ruminates over gay societal successes and tragedies that affect the larger LGBTQ and allied communities.
For some audiences, The Inheritance will be too sprawling and too male focused. That's despite Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member Lois Smith making an important and devastating arrival in Part Two. But overall The Inheritance hums along thanks to Lopez's multifaceted storytelling that pays homage to Howards End while also veering away from Forster's engaging template.
The Inheritance is also blessed with Tony Award-winning film and stage director Stephen Daldry ( Billy Elliot; An Inspector Calls ) at the helm. Daldry's Olivier Award-winning direction is stark, and always places its emphasis on the amazing acting company.
There is plenty of actor doubling going on, and the cast spins out a masterful array of believable and often very funny characters. Jon Clark's sophisticated and Olivier Award-winning lighting design frames and transforms the action, which ranges from sex and drug-fueled Fire Island parties to a secluded, centuries-old upstate New York home that possesses a tear-jerking secret.
With The Inheritance, Lopez creates an artistic dialogue with Forster that fascinatingly spans decades and compares the hard-won freedoms of today with memories of past repressions.
Lopez also uses The Inheritance to ponder the different kinds of legacies that get lost or passed down among successive generations of gay men. It's a deserving history, and Lopez isn't at all ashamed to give it the epic treatment.