On the day Meghan Markle married Prince Harry, a bright sunny warm day here in London, I happily spent seven hours in a darkened theatre. I was at the Young Vic to take in the closing performances of Matthew Lopez's acclaimed new play The Inheritance, his epic two-part exploration of the legacies and obligations of gay culture and identity post-AIDS. Directed by Stephen Daldry, and featuring a mixed UK and American cast of relatively unknown young male actors (plus John Benjamin Hickey and, oh yes, Vanessa Redgrave), the production opened to ecstatic reviews in March, and will be transferring to the West End later this fall.
As virtually every review of the play has already stated, Lopez's work is essentially Angels in America meets Howard's End. His debt to the former work (which the playwright does not shy away from acknowledging, sometimes cheekily, sometimes more subtly) is largely structural and thematic: two sprawling parts tracking the romantic entanglements and social betrayals and surprising relationships that play out amongst a group of gay men in New York struggling to make sense of the world in a time of renewed political crisis (the election of Trump looms heavily over the plot, making the play feel, again as with Angels, like an instant historical document). The adaptation of E.M. Forster's novel is much more conscious and complex, with the Schlegel sisters' fateful intertwining of their lives with those of the Wilcoxes here transposed to the accidental friendship between lovers Eric Glass and Toby Darling (Kyle Soller and Andrew Burnap) and the older couple Walter and Henry (Paul Hilton and Hickey), who live in the same Upper West Side apartment complex. Eric and Toby have a large circle of friends, all of whom are smart and gorgeous and witty and socially progressive and take for granted their right to marry and have kids and shop at Whole Foods for expensive organic produce. Eric and Toby are themselves planning to marry (the proposal is made during an hilariously athletic sex scene), but the damaged and narcissistic Toby's obsession with the young actor, Adam (Samuel Levine), who is starring in his new play, threatens to derail their happiness. Eric turns to Walter for solace, and the two men form a deep bond, with Walter especially serving as Eric's instructor and guide regarding what it was like to live through the AIDS epidemic. In particular, Walter tells Eric about the country house to which he and Henry had first retreated as a way of shutting out the disease, and then which Walter--to Henry's bitter regret--eventually turned into a hospice for those who were dying.
Those familiar with Forster's novel will realize where all of this is leading, and when, indeed, Vanessa Redgrave herself appears at the end of the play's second part--playing a woman whose son was cared for by Walter at his house, and who now serves as its caretaker--it feels both inevitable and deeply satisfying. Lopez's treatment of Forster's work is careful, honest and, above all, deeply sincere. And while, on the one hand, it is fun to spot the different references to the novel, as well as the ways in which the playwright subtly recasts them--how, for example, both Toby and the rent boy Leo (also played by Levine) he takes up with after Adam spurns him, are versions of Forster's Leonard Bast character--the play's use of Howard's End as an intertext is less self-referentially postmodern than it is deliberately pedagogical. That is, the novel becomes a touchstone for instructing audiences in a theory of contemporary gay belonging that, in Elizabeth Freeman's words, is also a way of "being long": of knowing who you are and who you might yet become through a conscious act of knowing where you've come from, and who has come before you. To this end, Morgan himself appears as a kind of teacher figure in the play (superbly incarnated by Hilton), framing the action by offering bits of writerly exposition, by cajoling the younger men to probe more deeply their characters' motivations, and finally by demonstrating that only they can be the authors of their own stories.
To be sure, this overtly presentational narrative conceit--with characters referring to themselves in the third person and addressing the audience directly on a range of contemporary and historical issues--can sometimes feel too earnest, a bit like a high school civics lesson. This is most apparent in the scene in which Eric and Toby and their friends take the measure of their progress as gay men in the twenty-first century, asserting their rights to marry and adopt while also lamenting the closing of gay bars and the commodification of queer culture and those who have been left behind. It all sounds like a confirmation of Lisa Duggan's argument about the "new homonormativity," except there is the somewhat problematic irony that the men reciting this argument--most of them white and economically well-off and healthy and able-bodied--are themselves part of this very constituency. (One can already anticipate the critiques that will inevitably be levelled against Lopez's play--not least that it is another example of gay men talking out of their arseholes to themselves.)
At the same time, I greatly admire the way Lopez openly traffics in sentiment, which is here marshalled not as a soporific of emotional exaggeration or self-indulgent nostalgia in order to dull audiences' critical faculties, but rather as an attitude of fellow-feeling in which different positions and perspectives and experiences might meet through the shared acknowledgement of our bodily vulnerability. This is most successfully--and feelingly--demonstrated in the endings to both parts of The Inheritance. In the first, Eric, on his initial visit to Walter's property, has an encounter with the ghostly emanations of the men whose deaths Walter eased, an encounter that, in Daldry's execution of the scene--twenty or more men seeming to manifest spontaneously from the walls of the auditorium and descending to the stage through the audience to greet Eric by name--had myself and many more in the audience openly weeping. In the second, Redgrave tells Eric and Leo the story of her son Michael's death at the estate: how, after initially spurning him for his sexuality, she was reunited with him by Walter, only to realize too late what additional time with him her prejudices had robbed her of. In Redgrave's thoroughly unsentimental delivery of this make-believe story, the no-nonsense Margaret repeatedly banging her head at her own stupidity, Lopez and Daldry create the very conditions for making belief in the audience, our identification with Margaret's pain forcing an examination of what, in the same circumstances, we might have done differently. In a play bursting at the seams with amazing performances, it is worth noting that the great Redgrave's belated appearance is the exact opposite of stunt-casting. Yes, she is there in part because of her name and because of her connection to the Merchant/Ivory film of Howard's End. But her performance commands through its understatement, not its showiness. Her presence sutures together the various threads of the play, and the other actors are not so much diminished by her on-stage shadow as burnished by it.
On a bare wooden set designed by Bob Crowley that consists of a retractable central plank that can be raised or lowered to signify a table or a swimming pool or gravesite as needed, director Daldry commands our attention through spareness and the intensity of his actors' physical presence. And I mean this quite literally. There are few props or scenographic embellishments (save for a couple of stunning upstage dioramic reveals at key moments in the action), but for almost the entirety of both parts of the play most of the actors remain on stage, listening along with us as the story unfolds, and also through this careful listening helping to shape in no small way how this story unfolds. There are no small parts in the theatre, as the saying goes, but in the collectivist ethos of this play--with Lopez's script taking care to identify both the uniqueness and the togetherness of Young Man 1 through 10--Daldry's decision to show us how corporeally proximate is this idea on stage seems absolutely crucial. I just hope that when the production transfers to a grander house in the West End the humbleness of this idea--and the entire staging more generally--is retained.
Because yesterday's matinee and evening performances were the closing ones of this run of the production, the energy in the auditorium felt especially charged and electric. At the curtain call some of the actors were openly weeping along with members of the audience. And Lopez, brought up on stage to share in the kudos, seemed genuinely stunned and grateful that what he had written had made such a connection. As with Angels, whose two-part premiere on Broadway I was initially thwarted from seeing (long story), this production of The Inheritance feels like an event. I am thrilled I got to experience it.