2019 American Music Awards

In Broadway's Powerful Queer Epic 'The Inheritance,' Matthew Lopez Bridges an LGBTQ Generation Gap

Matthew Murphy
The cast of "The Inheritance"

One may as well begin with Frank Ocean's PReP+. On the same day I went to see a preview performance of Part Two of The Inheritance, the breathtaking six-and-a-half-hour theatrical epic by playwright Matthew Lopez, word came that the R&B artist was launching an exclusive New York party that purported to re-imagine '80s/'90s dance clubs as if the popular HIV prophylaxis drug "had been invented in that era." Internet sniping, somewhat predictably, came swiftly, either to that provocative name and the lack of an accompanying health initiative, or to the implication that in the throes of the AIDS epidemic there weren't vibrant parties still being put on by people fighting for their lives. Plus, there was a list of house rules that accompanied each party. You know what '80s and '90s New York clubbing didn't have? Posted rules.

That party and the reaction to it, which broke to a degree along generational lines, is one illustration of a question that's at the heart of The Inheritance, currently in previews on Broadway and opening Nov. 17: how do different generations of queer people talk to, not at, each other? What can one learn from the other -- including about the legacy of AIDS? What, if anything, does one owe to the other? The Inheritance is a towering piece of theater, one that has already enjoyed two acclaimed runs in London, at the not-for-profit Young Vic and, last fall and winter, on the West End, where it won four Olivier Awards (Britain's Tonys) including best new play. Fantastically directed by Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Crown) it springs from an audacious and fascinating concept that first dawned on Lopez a decade ago: transposing Howards End, the E.M. Forster Edwardian-era masterpiece about social class and how we treat those on the margins, to a coterie of queer men -- friends, neighbors, boyfriends and hookups -- in modern-day Manhattan.

"I think the truth is, and always has been, that New Yorkers love to see themselves depicted in anything," says Matthew Lopez, in a dressing room at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, a month before the play's opening. "New York loves itself, and is very proud of itself, and that holds true with this play as well." The Panama City, Florida native has called New York home since the turn of the millennium, and it's been the setting of his earlier plays, including Somewhere [2011] and Reverberation [2015], but the city has never been as intrinsic to his work as it is in The Inheritance. "It's one thing for a play to be set in one apartment in New York," he explains. "It's another thing for a play like this, where New York is a character in the play. We go to so many places, and we generally to go to the places that the audience goes to. Every New Yorker has an acquaintance or relationship with at least a few of the places that we go: uptown, downtown, Brooklyn, upstate, Hamptons, Fire Island. So I think that mentally, the audience can sort of hold the geography of the play in their minds in a way that the London audience did not have the ability to."

New York references -- BAM, Film Forum, The Strand -- abound. And no one groans quite like New Yorkers upon hearing that the play's central figure, thirty-something mensch Eric Glass (Kyle Soller), pays an obscenely low $575 for a rent-controlled three-bedroom on the Upper West Side that's been in his family for decades. "I love the audience's reaction to that! It's so great," laughs Lopez. And yet, the writer says it was essential that he and Daldry first staged this bold and sprawling production an ocean away from the city that birthed it. "That was the strategy," he offers. "We always knew that our desired terminus was New York, but it couldn't be the starting point. Stephen has always said, 'You never get it right until the third production. That's when you actually know what you're doing, and how to do it.' Stephen knew that first production would be sort of, 'we're figuring out how to do this'." It has also been very much a work-in-progress, tweaked before its West End run and again in a New York workshop this spring. Changes were made to accommodate the new Broadway ensemble (the five principal actors from London have remained, ten others were re-cast), and "streamlining" has been ongoing for a play that originally clocked in around seven hours.

"Across both plays we've shed close to twenty minutes from the West End production," Lopez says. "So now I think it's much closer to six and a half. The challenge has always been, 'How do you create intentional messiness while avoiding unintentional messiness?' That challenge is hard to meet, and it has taken a lot of time, figuring out how to tell the story that feels expansive. Part One is very tidy, in that it's compact in some ways. But Part Two is just very expansive, and intentionally built to be messy. It spans a bigger period of time, the production is bigger, we do more sort of production-y things. And so the challenge has been throughout each production, including that workshop we did in the spring, how to be as efficient as possible."

A familiarity with Forster's Howards End or the much-adored 1992 Merchant Ivory film adaptation adds to the appreciation of The Inheritance, but it's hardly a prerequisite. In some ways the borrowed elements are conspicuous: a country house with special significance is bequeathed but initially denied; there's a plutocrat with little time for the poor named Henry Wilcox; and the play's opening line, "One may as well begin with Toby's voicemails," is a direct variation. But elsewhere, Lopez takes the book and runs with it: Forster's big-hearted Margaret Schlegel and her free-spirited tornado of a sister Helen are rendered here as the trusting, good-natured Eric Glass and his boyfriend Toby Darling, a life-of-the-party charmer who wreaks havoc on those he gets close to. Played with unabashed electricity by Andrew Burnap, Toby is a narcissist who becomes a momentary 'it' writer thanks to an utterly fabricated autobiography that gets optioned for the theater. Soon enough, he's broken Eric's heart, run roughshod over the life of a young rent boy, danced with Tina, alienated his friends and gone into a spiral. "He's a cannibal," says Lopez, moments after acknowledging that Toby is in many ways the writer himself. "Toby is effectively me. I've written myself in Toby. There's a lot of good qualities to Toby, but his spiritual bankruptcy has everything to do with how he treats other people. He's probably who I would have become if I hadn't gotten sober."

The other principals in The Inheritance include John Benjamin Hickey, who puts as benign a face as one can on Henry Wilcox, a globe-traveling, Trump-donating billionaire, who views all relationships as "transactional" and is given to saying things like, "I owe nothing to anyone to anyone but my family," and Samuel H. Levine, visceral in two alike-but-different roles as Adam, an opportunistic young actor who attracts and eventually eclipses Toby, and Leo, a hustler barely subsisting who – because of his uncanny resemblance to Adam – gets sucked in and nearly destroyed by Toby. Also in a dual role is English actor Paul Hilton, playing both E.M. Forster himself (in an inspired device, Lopez makes the author a narrator and shaman for the play's literary-inclined young characters seeking to tell "their stories") and Walter Poole, Henry's saintly partner of decades, who not only survived the "Age of AIDS," but in 1989 turned the couple's upstate home into an ad hoc hospice for dying friends and strangers, gay men with nowhere else to turn. It is in Walter that Eric, the play's other nurturer, finds inspiration and a purpose to his life: delivering compassion, one person at a time. "What I wanted to do with Walter's story, and the example he set," Lopez explains, "which Eric picks up, and history repeats itself, in Eric, is to ask, 'How does one change the world?' That canard of, 'You change the world sometimes by changing a life.' I wanted to examine that. And it's what Toby is not able to do. He's about as opposite from the spiritual ideal that Walter presents as I could imagine."

"Only connect!" E.M. Forster famously wrote more than a hundred years ago in Howards End, and The Inheritance is all about connecting, particularly with those from another generation to whom you might not be inclined to pay much mind, as Lopez himself once felt. "I grew up a young, queer Puerto Rican kid, in Panama City, and then I moved to New York when I was 21," he recalls. "And I did not understand those older white men who came before me. I felt that I had no compassion for them, I felt that I had no use for them. I felt that they were aloof and didn't seem to have much interest or compassion for me. But I decided that I really wanted to understand that generation, and that group of older gay men, and as a queer young man of color, I made a conscious decision to investigate what the lives of older white gay men were. And I know I'll get criticized for that. You know, the 'Why do you perpetuate the monolith of white gay male domination?' question. I certainly didn't sit down with that intention. What I sat down with was a sense of exploration. I wanted to understand them. I wanted to find compassion for them. And in doing so, I have. It has changed what I understand about that generation."

If that decision by a Latinx writer – to focus on the lives of largely white (there are four actors of color in the play), largely male (there's only one woman, who appears briefly, though crucially, late in Part Two), mostly educated and well-off (only Leo is really struggling, financially), gay characters who talk books and do brunch – has come under question in some quarters, Lopez, who's previously tackled the Puerto Rican experience and anti-queer violence and trauma in past works, says, "I have written my story." He adds that it was never his goal to write a definitive depiction of the totality of the global LGBTQ experience. "I think that seems to be retroactively applied to the play, perhaps because of the grandiosity of the run time, and how big it got," he surmises. "But I never sat down and said, 'Let me write the grand statement.'"

Along with the wave of accolades for the play have come frequent, favorable comparisons to another two-parter, Angels In America, Tony Kushner's landmark "gay fantasia on national themes" that had a Broadway revival last year. It's about as high a praise as any piece of modern queer theater could receive, but except for size, the two works are more different than they are alike, and it's one inheritance Lopez probably could have done without. "I never said that! I never asked for that!" he says of the comments. "I bristle at that! I recoil from it, because that's not what I'm doing. I can't control what people say about it. But that was never my intention, and again, I think retroactively intention has been placed on the play that was never there. To be honest with you, the first intention was – and remains – how to take my favorite novel, by my favorite author, and tell it in a way that he never got a chance to do in his lifetime."

He's honored Forster beautifully. The Inheritance's essential ensemble characters, when not part of the action, are often gathered around an unadorned platform, observing or Greek-chorus commenting. They include "The Jasons," two Pollyannaish, fun-loving boyfriends with the same first name; Jasper, equal parts lefty activist and relentless twink-chaser; and Tristan, an outspoken HIV-positive health care worker. They're literate, love a good hang, and are passionate Hillary supporters: we get to endure the deflation of election night 2016 all over again, right along with them. Ostensibly set from the summer of 2015 through the spring of 2018, it's hard to imagine a play feeling more of-the-moment, except maybe a staged reading of Donald Trump's Twitter feed. The president, by the way, is never named, though he's certainly referred to. When the boys excoriate Henry for backing Trump, one character asks, "Even after Charlottesville? After Puerto Rico?" Tristan goes so far as to compare the president to the HIV virus, slowly killing the nation.

Lopez's words and Daldry's staging are breathtaking in their freedom. With most of the cast barefoot throughout (nothing deeper there, says Lopez, than to facilitate quick costume changes) The Inheritance plays fast and loose with structure, and moods change with head-spinning frequency. Plot development is interspersed with big gatherings -- dinner parties, multiple birthdays for Eric -- at which topics of the day are hilariously hashed out, from the appropriation of queer jargon like "Yass kween!" by straight culture to the not-for-sale artwork made by Tucker, a colorful, mittens-wearing Gen-Z'er who Jasper meets at Coachella and, naturally, lives for the 'Gram. Sex is presented both as slow choreography, and on Fire Island, something more rabid. The fourth wall is broken left and right, not just in characters addressing the audience, but in clever, bratty moments: Adam cleans his ears after a shower and casually tosses a used Q-tip into the front row; later, a wedding is crashed by characters literally climbing over us.

There are also utterly engrossing monologues. Walter tells a prosaic, extended tale of meeting Henry, the evolution of their relationship and his own calling to provide comfort during the AIDS crisis. Adam's graphic, erotic account of a gang bang in a Prague bathhouse is intended to arouse, just as an HIV scare that follows is meant to jolt. Late in Part Two, Toby has a reckoning with himself, the lies he's created and the people he's hurt. And then there is the final scene of Part One, one of the most quietly devastating depictions I have ever seen on a stage in my life, in which Eric makes it to that house in the country and encounters its legacy. It's a scene certainly deserving of those Angels comparisons, as powerful in its own sacred and supernatural way as that angel descending over Prior Walter. When Kyle Soller, who won the best actor Olivier for his portrayal of Eric, said last year that The Inheritance "feels like so much more than theater," this is what he meant. My closest touchstone for how it feels? The first time I set eyes on the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt laid out on D.C.'s National Mall in 1996.

Authenticity versus compromise, commerce versus compassion, ambition versus making a difference – The Inheritance tackles them all. But it may be with AIDS that the generational divide is most stark. You either lived through what the play often calls "the plague" or you didn't, but if you did, it changed you. When Tucker asks, "What are T-cells?" it's not derided so much as it forces the question: What do people coming of age in a time free enough to call a dance party 'PrEP' need to know about the decimation that came before? Forster's presence even asks us to consider the very real dangers of being openly queer a century ago, risks that still exist in large swaths of the world today. Forster -- "Morgan," as he is called in the play and was known to friends -- takes a dim view of these urban openly gay millennials with the freedom to plan weddings and children. But Toby -- in one of his finer moments -- calls out the author for never having had the courage to come out himself.  

A theatrical work reckoning with that history will naturally attract older audiences, and Broadway ticket prices, of course, skew toward the well-heeled. But, like Jeremy O. Harris' lauded Slave Play, with which it will undoubtedly compete for best play at next year's Tonys, The Inheritance needs to be seen by the youth as well, in the interest of the intergenerational understanding the play promotes.

Does Lopez believe it will be seen by the Leos and Tuckers of the world? "I hope it will!" he replies. "I mean, I wrote it for them as much as I wrote it for my generation, to kind of understand the generation that came before me. I hope that maybe – through watching Toby and Eric – they will understand me in some way."

He adds that there's no getting around the financial realities of keeping a show running on Broadway – "you can't just give tickets away" – but says The Inheritance is looking at ways to make them more affordable. "We're partnering with The Generations Project [a nonprofit promoting cross-generational LGBTQ dialogue] to effectively get people to sponsor blocks of tickets for young people... We're basically turning around to the people who can afford to see the play, and saying, 'If it's so important to you that younger people come and see this play, buy another ticket, and give it to a younger person.'"

Following the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, at a moment in history when the country is riven, even among progressives, by generation (only days ago even Barack Obama was slammed by some for questioning so-called "cancel culture"), The Inheritance is the right play, at the right time, in the right city. And if six and a half hours sounds like a lot, know that not only does it fly by, but it's so ingeniously written and structured that you don't want it to end. Lopez has rightly observed that to some, the acts of the play feel like chapters in a TV series – the theatrical equivalent of a Netflix binge.

And what of that possibility, at some point? The Inheritance is only beginning what will hopefully be a long life on Broadway, and Lopez says it's too soon to speculate about a future on film or TV. But you have to imagine it would be something episodic, and lengthy – there's too much going on in this glorious story to short-change anything. In fact, Lopez suggests some of those previously-cut scenes just might resurface one day. "All I know is, twelve hours," he says with a laugh. "I'm gonna need at least twelve hours!" It would be twelve hours well spent.

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