Review: Is “The Inheritance” the Next Gay Epic?

On the surface, it is easy to make a comparison between “Angels in America” and Matthew Lopez’s new play “The Inheritance”: both are sprawling, two-part plays with large casts of characters and explore gay themes, especially HIV. However, when you look closer and move past this vague description, it becomes clear that the plays are not very alike after all (something Lopez himself has even admitted). “The Inheritance” may be similar in length to “Angels,” but it fails to live up to Kushner’s work in almost every way.

“The Inheritance” tells the story of three generations of gay men all dealing with the cultural aftermath of the AIDS crisis. It clearly wants to be a gay epic, but in spite of its large cast, it mostly tells a fairly constrained story of a gay couple, Eric Glass (Kyle Soller) and Toby Darling (Daryl Gene Daughtry Jr.). The play is loosely adapted from E. M. Forster’s “Howards End.” “The Inheritance” tries to have the best of both worlds: it wants to be both an adaptation of a novel (which has a limited scope) and a massive gay fantasia.

While it has an epic length (six and half hours), the content of the play never justifies the run time. The story could have been quite easily trimmed and streamlined, especially the lagging second part. For example, an ensemble of eight gay men who mostly act as a Greek chorus — or in the gay world, a brunch crew — had three largely unnecessary “The Boys in the Band”-style scenes. They say mean things to each other, are overly dramatic, and quickly and superficially run through a list of woke political topics like PrEP, Hillary Clinton, same sex marriage, adoption, Grindr, the death of gay bars, the value of camp, and who gets to say “yaaaas qween.” These scenes are clunky, do not advance the plot, are filled with under-developed characters, and are stuffed with talking points that the play has no intention of actually discussing (one throw away line about trans women feels particularly patronizing).

In addition to being the brunch friends, these eight actors act as narrators. The play begins with the cast all struggling to figure out how to write their story. Soon, E. M. Forster himself (Paul Hilton, the true emotional core and unintentional star of the play) shows up to help. Throughout Forster, the ensemble, and the main actors take on narrator roles, sometimes speaking about themselves in third person. While this might have been an interesting move, it becomes incredibly trite when the characters constantly reference that they are writing a story. It is a juvenile move for a playwright, and when in the end one of the characters writes “The Inheritance” it is almost impossible not to roll your eyes.

If all this meta frame and faux-woke ensemble were cut and the play focused on its story, it could have been something very powerful — also something quite shorter. The decaying relationship of Eric and Toby, and the ways their lives intersect with an older couple that survived the AIDS crisis, Walter (Hilton again) and Henry Wilcox (John Benjamin Hickey), a young actor named Adam, and an even younger homeless sex worker, Leo (both played by Samuel H. Levine), makes for a compelling piece of art. Lopez’s play feels far too unrestrained, but it’s central story is well told. He has adapted “Howards End” with genius subtlety, molding character traits and plot points into the modern gay world, and even sneaking in an impressive number of direct quotes from the novel. Lovers of the novel (or the Merchant Ivory film) will smile at the many “Howards End” Easter eggs perfectly placed throughout.

However, not everything from the novel translates well. Why, for instance, does Lopez go out of his way to humanize Henry Wilcox, a billionaire gay Trump supporter, and why on earth would Eric, a self-described social justice advocate, enter into a no-sex-allowed marriage with him? These plot holes are representative of some larger issues of the play, particularly when it comes to its politics and representation.

Put bluntly, the play has a major diversity problem. The ensemble may boast some racial diversity, but all of the major characters are white, all but one are rather wealthy, every actor is gorgeous and muscular, and there are basically no female characters. The entire play has a single female character, Margaret (played by the divine Lois Smith), and she appears only briefly at the end. The lack of women in the play is bizarre, especially because the source material is all about women. Even if the goal was to translate that story to a modern gay context, it is strange to think that none of these characters have female friends or relatives they interact with.

As Louis Pietzman has written, the play also has an old-fashioned, prudish, stigmatizing, moralizing, Reagan-esque, negative view of gay sex (and especially gay sex on Fire Island); gay sex is never allowed to be depicted in the play — E. M. Forster literally censors it — and in the two monologues about sex, the character speaking ends up bleeding from the anus and seroconverting. In the world of “The Inheritance” sex is something bad, often drug-fueled, rarely consensual, and dangerous. Adding insult to injury, the offensive portrayal of a sex worker copy-and-pastes every stereotype you could imagine. Although it does not seem possible, the sexual politics of this play are more dated than those in “Angels in America.” The play claims to speak for the current moment of gay history, but Lopez clearly misunderstands the zeitgeist.

While I have many issues with “The Inheritance,” I cannot deny that even days later, it is still affecting my mood, my emotional state, my physical being. Lopez’s play is far from perfect, but it has grabbed my heartstrings and will not let go. It has several scenes of unparalleled pathos that are undeniably deeply affecting, and I can guarantee that you will cry at least once. However, it left me feeling conflicted, upset, and frustrated. It has all the elements of a great work, but sadly it does not live up to its potential; for a play so massive and supposedly timely, it is disappointingly narrow and dated. Despite the hype, “The Inheritance” is unequivocally not the radical, of-the-moment critical piece we all hoped it would be. If it’s another gay epic we want, we will just have to keep waiting.

Theater Critic. Vassar College alum, current PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center.

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