Trying to unpack The Inheritance has me stuck between some opposing perspectives. While it’s great to see a play on Broadway that deals with gay identity, sex, love, and desperation, it’s also not saying anything new about those subjects. While the central performances are captivating, the cast amounts to a Parade of Hots, like scrolling through my Instagram feed and looking at bodies I’ll never have, symmetrical, Kiehl’s-glowing faces, and in-tact hairlines. While there are people of color onstage and a Latino-African American mixed race couple who are married and adopt a kid, the story is not about them – ever. Yet the oft-centered, self-immolating bad boy white man trope usually associated with straight dudes is present here in one of the main characters, Toby Darling.
Perhaps most frustratingly, The Inheritance sets itself up for direct comparisons to its inspiration and its forefather, Angels in America, another two-part, all-day theatrical event about gay (white) men and AIDS. But the panorama of Angels is so much broader than the scope of The Inheritance (for one thing, Angels includes women, something The Inheritance is unconcerned with until the very end, and then only in passing), which gives the nagging feeling that the expanded length of Matthew Lopez’s play is only to set it up as the successor to Tony Kushner’s. It takes some balls to put your play next to one of the greatest pieces of writing in any medium, but The Inheritance doesn’t earn that position.
Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it. I would rather see this play a hundred times than so many other plays I’ve sat through this year. It is entertaining. Lopez has a gift for dialogue, the scenes clip by, and the debates/fights are often electrifying. There is a particular scene in the first part in which a group of young gay men discuss what it’s like to be gay at the cusp of our country’s latest downfall (the turning of 2016 to 2017, when the play is set) in front of an older gay man who can’t get a word in edgewise. The arguments are sound, but they come from our New York liberal echo chamber. All of these volleys are tossed from a particular position of privilege – youth, in addition to (mostly) whiteness and (all) economic stability – but they are things I hear often amongst my gay friends and things I have, sort of embarrassingly, said. Lopez knows what goes on at our brunches and on our Twitters and the characters feel real and recognizable, which is, in itself, an achievement.
It’s also directed with strength and humor by Stephen Daldry. Lopez and Daldry keep almost everyone on stage through the whole play, sitting on cushions at the table-like playing space by Bob Crowley. They’re all present and reacting to what’s happening in scenes they’re not in and Daldry throws in small shifts of body language to keep the whole organism engaged in the events. The stage is mostly bare and mostly a white platform in black space, but the staging – across almost seven hours – never gets repetitive or boring. Daldry finds infinite variations in the limited options he has and the staging always beautifully lays out the character dynamics.
But these exemplary aspects, plus a masterful performance by Kyle Soller at the play’s center, can’t cover for the gaps that Lopez isn’t able to fill in. Lopez, himself, is a person of color, which makes his decentralizing of the plays non-white characters all the more mystifying. Jason #1 (Darryl Gene Daughtry Jr.) and his husband, Jason #2 (Arturo Luís Soria), are set up as jokes from the very beginning – they have the same name, ha ha ha. They pop into the story to offer a quip or a finger snap and a hip pop, but have no function in the grander scheme. Tristan (Jordan Barbour) is at least afforded one scene in Part Two where he can confront Soller’s Eric Glass, but one scene does not a substantial role make, and, as I’ll discuss later, it’s all too similar to a scene from Part Two of Angels in America.
The reality is that plays about rich, hot, white gays are more appealing to rich, white producers, so I’m cutting Lopez some slack. Would we be seeing his play on Broadway if it were about people of color? The answer should be yes, but the ingrained racism of the commercial theater makes it an unfortunate no. This is a systemic issue, not the failing of one playwright, but why, within the framework of this white men’s story, is there not room for these tertiary characters to have something meatier to play, especially when the play is so long?
The play is capital-G Gay, but I often felt like it was trying to downplay that aspect as much as possible, too. In one of the very first scenes, Lopez has written what is, frankly, a very hot sex scene between Eric and his boyfriend, Toby Darling (Andrew Burnap). The production turns this into a comedic wrestling match where two heterosexual actors, fully clothed, twist themselves into “humorous” positions that vaguely approximate gay sex. It doesn’t need to be graphic, but it also doesn’t – and shouldn’t – be something for the audience to laugh at. The sex elsewhere in the play happens offstage, out of sight, out of mind, and when lust is expressed, there is almost always something joking or frightening about it. Why is this gay play afraid of gay sex?
Lopez takes E.M. Forster’s Howards End as an inspiration for the plot and character relationships in The Inheritance, but throws Forster’s novel in a blender with Angels, Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion!, and Craig Lucas’ film Longtime Companion. With so many reference points, the play’s own identity is muddled. It takes the big plot turns from Howards End and they’re as effective here as they are in Forster’s novel and its Merchant-Ivory film adaptation. It deals with AIDS, like Angels and Love! Valour! and Longtime Companion, but where those works live in the thick of the crisis, The Inheritance exists in this post-epidemic space where drugs like PrEP and PEP have caused the current generation of gay men to largely forgo condom usage even outside of monogamous relationships. The fear of contracting HIV is depleted thanks to these drugs, for better and for worse, and when a character is infected in The Inheritance through an instance of mostly non-consensual group sex, he is thunderstruck, mostly because he didn’t think he could contract the virus. The ignorance of this younger generation of gay men is a prime dramatic topic to put on stage, but the eye-opening that this gives the character passes too quickly.
There is an admittedly moving coup de théâtre at the conclusion of Part One, but it is lifted, almost whole-cloth, from the end of Longtime Companion. I won’t spoil it, but after you’ve seen the play, look up the final scene from that film on YouTube (or better, watch the whole movie – it’s great) and you’ll see what I mean. Does Lopez think no one will recognize it, or is it an intentional reference? If so, someone should cite the source.
Many scenes in Part Two are too similar to scenes from the second part of Angels in America to pass without recognizing them. A character compares the current president to AIDS like characters in Angels compare Ronald Reagan to AIDS. Toby and Eric, who have a nasty break up in Part One, meet to talk in Part Two and it does not go well (just like what happens with Prior and Louis in Perestroika). A character talks about gay men hooking up in the dunes of Fire Island and the Ramble in Central Park in both plays. When Tristan says to Eric, “I’m a gay, HIV-positive black man who lives in America. There’s no place for me in this country any more,” it echoes Belize’s “I live in America, Louis. I don’t have to love it,” speech in Angels. The similarities are too on the nose for it not to feel like Lopez is taking Perestroika as a road map for Part Two of his own play. But where Perestroika takes bold leaps and breaks the theatrical form of Millennium Approaches, Part Two of The Inheritance feels belabored under the loose ends it left itself to tie up.
The central character, though, is what keeps The Inheritance glued together and Kyle Soller’s performance is unmissable. Eric Glass is a fascinating role in that he exists only to support other people, but it isn’t a supporting part. He is the primary figure with which The Inheritance is concerned, not his ex-finacée who flies off the rails. Though Toby is the flashier, attention-grabbing character (and Burnap plays him with a delicious magnetism), it’s Eric who holds the audience’s heart. Eric martyrs himself before several of the characters, offering his sheer goodness and receiving mostly shit back. A Last Supper tableau, with Eric as Jesus, at the end of Part One highlights this a little too obviously.
But Soller fills the role with an unassuming lovability from the beginning and he projects a warm-heartedness that is then devastating when it’s doused in frigid water. There’s nothing complicated about Eric’s motivations and we’re never asked to write off bad behavior as an excuse for something from his past or as retaliation for poor treatment. He’s not the kind of complicated male antihero that populates so much popular culture – that’s Toby and no more need be said. Eric, instead, is a person who is trying to do the right thing at all times and it’s not always easy. Lopez’s decision to keep Eric good seems like a small thing, but in the scope of this titanic play, it ends up being the boldest thing he could do.