Review: 'The Inheritance' Packs An Emotional Wallop Playwright Matthew Lopez's two-part epic about gay life after the AIDS crisis is based on the work of E.M. Forster — who appears in the play — and bears some similarities to Angels in America.

A Literary And Theatrical Legacy On Display In 'The Inheritance'

Jordan Barbour, Darryl Gene Daughtry Jr., Kyle Soller, Arturo Luís Soria and Kyle Harris in The Inheritance. Matthew Murphy/MurphyMade hide caption

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Matthew Murphy/MurphyMade

Jordan Barbour, Darryl Gene Daughtry Jr., Kyle Soller, Arturo Luís Soria and Kyle Harris in The Inheritance.

Matthew Murphy/MurphyMade

Playwright Matthew Lopez is not coy about his influences. In The Inheritance, the two-part, seven-hour play about the New York gay community that opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on Broadway Sunday night, he pays homage to English novelist E.M. Forster, not just by appropriating the plot of his novel Howard's End, but making the author — who lived as a closeted gay man — a character in the play. And by situating his magnum opus in New York City and telling the story over two parts, Lopez invites comparisons to Angels in America. (Sometimes the hat tip comes with a wink: One of the characters crashes a gay wedding sporting a pair of tarnished white wings.)

The Inheritance is not equal to Tony Kushner's masterpiece. It can veer towards the melodramatic and the superficial. It could certainly be trimmed, without sacrificing its dramatic heft. That said, it is poised to be the breakout play of the fall season, and deserves the five Olivier awards it won — including for best new play and best director — in its original London run. Lopez doesn't explicitly quote the iconic line from Howards End, "only connect." But he conveys the sentiment all the same.

The beginning of The Inheritance is about its own creation: More than half a dozen young men lounge on the stage, hunkered over laptops and notebooks, and as they carp about the difficulty of crafting a story, Forster materializes as a guide. He narrates swaths of the play and occasionally interrupts the action to prod a character to voice what he actually feels. (Almost all of the characters are men; the sole woman — a magnetic Lois Smith, playing a bereaved mother — doesn't appear until the end.) The actors themselves speak in the third person to describe their inner thoughts. This would seem to violate the dictum of showing and not telling, but for the most part, the approach works.

That's largely because Lopez is an astute observer of human nature, and he has created compelling, flawed characters theatergoers can relate to. The principal protagonist is Eric Glass, played by Kyle Soller in an exquisitely sensitive performance that earned him an Olivier Award. Eric is a 33-year-old Upper West Side denizen who feels adrift; as he confides to the audience, he wakes "in the night to the fear that his life was amounting to nothing, that his days were accumulating as inconsequentially as autumn snow." He lives in a rent-controlled apartment with the seductive and destructive writer Toby Darling (a charismatic Andrew Burnap). He and Toby get engaged before the end of the first act. Their older upstairs neighbor, Walter Poole (Paul Hilton, who also plays Forster) presciently observes that they are ill-matched.

The engagement in fact implodes, just as Walter dies and Eric loses his apartment. He and Toby find solace in two very different people. Eric falls for Walter's former partner, Henry Wilcox, a Republican billionaire real estate developer, played with commanding panache by John Benjamin Hickey. Toby first pursues an aspiring actor, Adam, and later conducts a parasitic affair with the destitute rent boy Leo. Samuel H. Levine plays both of those love interests; in one virtuosic sequence, he seamlessly transitions between them as they hold a conversation.

These relationships serve as mechanisms for The Inheritance to explore its principal theme: what this generation of gay men owes to previous generations and to each other. At the close of Part I, Lopez makes us feel viscerally the cost the AIDS crisis in a sequence that reduced everyone around me to tears. That may be the emotional apex of the play, but it has many indelible moments. Steven Daldry, who helmed Netflix's The Crown, directs The Inheritance with a pared-down aesthetic — there are few props and minimal scenery — the effect of which is to make over-the-top sequences pop even more. When Toby dances with abandon at a rave, wearing nothing but a Speedo, we feel his ecstasy. And the flashback scene when the 20-something Henry climbs into bed with Walter for the first time is almost transporting. These two men, we learn in one of the play's third-person asides, are experiencing "the peace that comes from finally telling the truth about yourself, about your heart."

The way Lopez depicts the pleasure that comes from being a man in the company of others who desire him sets The Inheritance apart. Unlike, say, the closeted Mormon Joe Pitt in Angels in America, Lopez's characters do not suffer from internalized homophobia; they experience pain, but it is not because they are ashamed of their sexuality. In that sense, The Inheritance is very much of the 21st century. Sometimes Lopez works too hard to demonstrate his contemporary bonafides, particularly during the extended bull sessions Eric has with his friends. These conversations — packed with references to Broad City and Chadwick Boseman — can feel glib. When Eric voices nostalgia for the days when being gay felt like being privy to a secret club, a supporting character retorts, "You just described SoHo House," a boho club for the creative class. The ending, which unfurls in a long stream of codas, is also unsatisfying. It projects into 2080 and is too neat given the complexity of the protagonists.

In spite of those flaws, The Inheritance packs an emotional wallop that stays with you long after you leave the theater. At its core, it is an argument for engagement, and for healing heartbreak by opening ourselves to another chance at connection. "Tell me what to do," a character asks E.M. Forster in a despondent moment, after we have been brought face to face with the men who died too young. "You shall do as they could not," he is instructed. "You live."

Alexandra Starr, a frequent NPR contributor, is a Spencer fellow at Columbia University.