The Inheritance pulsates with a need to honour the past, and it does so with reverence. With a two-part format akin to Angels in America, Matthew Lopez sculpts an adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Howards End that evolves into an ambitious, and at times moving, enunciation of what it means to be gay in America.
Lopez uses his idol and fellow writer Forster not just as inspiration, but as a muse. Forster himself, beautifully played by Paul Hilton, acts as a type of framing device who guides a group of male writers to tell their own stories. He edits, narrates, and at times scoffs incredulously at the uninhibited ways modern men show their sexuality.
Part of The Inheritance is Lopez thanking Forster for his stories, and you get the sense that Lopez is writing out his own authorial process. Hilton’s Forster leaves the men after the first part, leaving the characters to narrate their own paths. Lopez also nods to American gay theatre, with playwrights like Kushner, Kramer and McNally visible as clear inspirations.
The story becomes a close sibling to Forster’s own, but reimagined for a gay cast. Eric Glass, a self-doubting, ‘terminally middle-class’ and compassionate caretaker, and Toby Darling, a cocky and fame-hungry writer, are two thirty-somethings living in Eric’s family-inherited and rent-controlled Manhattan apartment. Eric befriends Walter, an older man who lived through the AIDS crisis. Walter recounts how in those tragic times he brought men with AIDS to his beloved country home to live out their final days in peace. Upon his death, Walter bestows the house to Eric, but his wealthy partner Henry Wilcox (who shares the same name of his Forsterian analog) chooses to ignore Walter’s wish.
Lopez points out the crucial need to commemorate those whose lives were cut short during the epidemic, and it does so with an immense affective power. He writes with an acute understanding of his characters, a self-aware and biting wit, a joy of spirit, and with an expert ability to tug at emotions. There’s an exhausting, relatable questioning of one’s own life’s worth, both in its present value and in what it might leave behind – here, it’s specifically located to gay men living in New York but the feeling is undoubtedly more universal than that.
His play develops into a sprawling saga, but one that’s more episodic than epic, about Eric and Toby, their friends, respective futures, and dreams of fulfilment. Lopez contrasts Eric and Toby, one of whom feels an affinity and passion for his past, the other whose life’s mission it is to erase any traces of his own. It becomes clear that for Lopez, the past must be faced, and honouring it and loving yourself are much of the same thing.
It’s moreish and chewy, and with Lopez’s gift for satisfying dramatic texture and Daldry’s immaculate instincts as a director, it’s certainly entertaining (the sex scenes portrayed as gym stretches are particularly cute). Yet The Inheritance is neither entirely substantial nor satiating, and it works better as an adaptation of Howards End than it does as a commentary on the role of gay men in modern society.
Its scope is undeniably limited, too. With only one woman in the cast (however formidable Vanessa Redgrave might be), who only appears at the latter half of the second part, inevitable questions arise about the whereabouts of these characters’ mothers, their sisters, their female friends.
In a conversation at brunch (where else?), Eric formulates the question ‘What does it mean now to be a gay man?’, and the group of men discuss whether gay culture is being diluted by mainstream acceptance, the decline of gay clubs, and the advent of digital cruising. Eric rightly champions trans rights and queer people of colour as new and pressing action items on the gay agenda, yet these positionalities, even if they’re present onstage, are certainly not centred. It’s as if the characters themselves want more from their writer. Bob Crowley’s design is minimal and beautiful. It’s essentially a communal table for story-making. But you can’t help but feel that not everyone has been invited to sit down and take part.
The cast are, without exception, brilliant. Soller’s Eric is the guiding protagonist and is exquisitely endearing, and Andrew Burnap’s Toby is maddeningly pompous but somehow still charming. Samuel H. Levine gives nuanced and compassionate performances of his two mirror-image characters, Adam and Leo. The latter is a sex worker who falls in love with Toby, and whose character is (thankfully) well-developed and nuanced. If anyone, he is the owner of the story. And then of course there’s Redgrave, who though given the daunting task of being the universal mother figure Margaret (another gesture to Forster), is simply superlative.
The politics, plausibility and impact are slightly forsaken for an ending steeped in sentiment, perhaps too much governed by Lopez’s debt to Forster. Like Forster’s gay novel Maurice, The Inheritance ends with an aspirational, if not entirely plausible, conclusion. It’s an ending that provides the fulfilment of having finished a binge-watching marathon of a Netflix series, but doesn’t offer up a progressive ideology, even a radicality, as Forster’s once did.
The Inheritance is on until 19 May 2018 at the Young Vic. Click here for more details.