A dozen men lay scattered across a blank page, wondering where to begin. They want to tell a story that will help them understand what it means to be twenty-first-century gay men. It’s a daring ambition they share with Matthew Lopez, whose two-part play The Inheritance opens on Broadway tonight, attempting to wrestle with and reconcile several decades of gay history. That these particular men have the luxury to loll around and ponder storytelling is our first indication of what kind it’s going to be.
As his on-stage mentor E.M. Forster suggests, where Lopez begins hardly matters. The more important questions are what story he’s going to tell and how.
Howards End at least partially answers that first question; Forster’s 1910 classic serves as loose inspiration for the play’s personae and plot. It’s in the how that the trouble with The Inheritance begins. Lopez attempts the bold sprawl of a novel without plumbing the same psychological depths, and faces the formal demands of a near-seven-hour play without generating sufficient stakes or forward momentum. As the actors toggle between narrating their story and embodying it, the stage fills and fills with lovely words, but they rarely add up to blood-pounding drama.
The world these men inhabit is recognizable if rarified; they shuttle between Manhattan and the Hamptons, flit from the Whitney Museum through literature-stuffed shelves at The Strand. The homogeneity of their cultural elitism surpasses personal differences — regardless of race or upbringing, they all have opinions on Ravel’s “String Quartet in F Major.” Often, they operate as a sort of Greek chorus who speak from a unified point of view. When talk turns, at various brunches and dinner parties, to contemporary politics or issues facing broader queer communities unrepresented here, it’s intellectual lip service ultimately untethered to plot. None of these men would disagree they have it easier than others.
An ill-fated, messy romance between two lead narrators serves as a primary through-line. One (played by Andrew Burnap) is brash and a bit conceited, partial to loud prints and crop tops. He ironically proclaims himself a “child of privilege,” but has spent his life running from difficult beginnings. Though he’s written a play about it, we don’t learn his backstory until it’s too late to win fresh sympathy. The other (Kyle Soller) is an actual beneficiary of both inordinate privilege and serendipity; he’s evicted from an inherited rent-controlled three-bedroom into the arms of a billionaire (standout vet John Benjamin Hickey). The biggest obstacle he faces is not recognizing that, underneath his cardigans, he’s beautiful and extraordinary. He eventually does, not to spoil the suspense.
The play proves most affecting in weaving intergenerational connections, and Lopez is adept at playing readily on heartstrings. Loss, regret, and the painful legacy of the AIDS crisis color the play’s more moving moments. Quieter and more mournful than its raw and harrowing predecessors, The Inheritance lovingly turns to survivors for stories they have to bestow with the wisdom of hindsight.
Performances from Paul Hilton, and especially Lois Smith, breathe a haunting humanity that sometimes stands in sharp contrast to more surface portrayals of younger characters. This is at least partially due to the play’s uneven mix of evocative, time-traveling prose that unfurls in extended monologues, and snappy dialogue that turns its soapy gears. Pacing languishes and then jerks awake, particularly in a rush toward tying up loose ends.
Director Stephen Daldry’s physical production is restrained to the point of seeming curiously barren, with only a handful of modest flourishes. For a play of such length, it’s a lot to ask of audience imagination. The muted aesthetic of Bob Crowley’s blank-page design only makes the play appear more insular and disconnected from a broader context. These men may no longer be the outsiders they once were, but they exist in a kind of private society inoculated from a more dominant culture. It may be nice to imagine, but it evades a more messy kind of truth.
Because The Inheritance dares to ask big, meaty questions — “what does it mean now to be a gay man?” chief among them — it can’t help but offer itself up as a kind of answer. For an endeavor so sweeping in scope, its findings are surprisingly narrow.
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Photos by Matthew Murphy