While some shows are famous for second-act trouble, Matthew Lopez’s THE INHERITANCE runs the risk of having both that and second-play trouble.
No, that’s too severe a judgment. But because the ending to his first act in Part One is so moving, powerful and tear-inducing, Lopez whets our appetite for even more potent extraordinary curtains.
The many that follow in this six-and-a-half-hour experience are really, really good ones. But Lopez and even superb two-time Tony-winning director Stephen Daldry — in his best work yet — can’t make any of them top what we’ve already seen.
Hell, theatergoers should be so lucky to have this problem with every show they see. So even if they’re greedy for better scenes after they’ve seen that unforgettable scene, they still should appreciate what Lopez has achieved in this epic two-part drama, must-see event.
At three-hours and fifteen minutes, Part One is more than a full play in itself. Management agrees, for it allows you to buy a ticket for each part independent of the other.
With orchestra seats costing $199 a pop – and, believe it or not, those aren’t the premium prices — you’d spend $398 for both plays (and we haven’t tacked on the charges that tend to go along with that). So if you can only afford Part One, don’t feel that there’s no sense in seeing just half of THE INHERITANCE. You’ll get more than enough as well as that magnificent scene.
For such an important work, why did Lopez settle for the namby-pamby non-names of “Part One” and “Part Two”? Twenty-six years ago, Tony Kushner did better in stoking our curiosity by intriguingly calling Part One of his ANGELS IN AMERICA MILLENNIUM APPROACHES and his Part Two PERESTROIKA.
Mentioning those plays isn’t irrelevant. Much of this mammoth event deals with Kushner’s subject: AIDS. Lopez’s play often seems to be the son of that landmark work.
As for more potent titles, Lopez might have found ones that were riffs on E.M. Forster’s HOWARDS END. After all, he full acknowledges that his plays were “inspired by the novel.”
“Inspired by” as opposed to “adapted from” is correct. Those who know Forster’s 1910 masterpiece will find many parallels but more detours.
THE INHERITANCE isn’t just an update, either, although it does advance Forster’s early 20th century action to Summer 2015-Spring 2017 in Part One and Spring 2017-Spring 2018 in Part Two.
The surprise is that Forster, now dead for nearly a half century, appears as a character. He leads a large male chorus of narrators whose summaries keep the two plays from being even longer. Paul Hilton solidly portrays him and beautifully delivers some of Lopez’s finest lines. (“Whether by death or dissolution, to fall in love is to make an appointment with heartbreak.”)
That Forster is on stage may not be apparent from a look at the cast list; here he’s called Morgan, which was his middle name. He’s on the scene to represent the old guard. For although Forster was brave enough in the early 1900s to write a novel about a homosexual relationship, he didn’t dare let the world see it for decades.
Millennial gay characters in THE INHERITANCE express contempt for Morgan’s “cowardice”; the plays’ older gays don’t. Lopez underlines that today’s young homosexuals who have lived in a far more permissive age can’t truly understand what their forebears endured in much less enlightened times.
There was a time, young ‘uns, when “pep” meant energy and not “PEP” – that before-sex pill. “Prep” was then slang for “prepare” and not “PrEP” (sic) – that after-sex pill. The young people in THE INHERITANCE have to be told by their elders what T-cells are; in the ‘80s, gays were well-aware of them and could tell you how many they had.
(Or, more to the point, how many they had left.)
Those who know HOWARDS END will find Henry, Paul and Charles Wilcox still so named while many other of its characters are condensed or new. One is Eric Glass (a most worthy Kyle Soller). As a narrator tells us, “Eric shared his books even when he knew they would not be returned.”
Someone like that deserves a nice husband – and here comes Toby Darling (the excellent Andrew Burnap), who’s written a very successful novel. Soon the two are an item – or are they? Did Toby fall in love at first sight with Eric or his multi-bedrooms-and-bathrooms rent-controlled apartment that sets him back a mere $575 a month?
If that’s the case, there’ll soon be trouble in this paradise, for there’s a possibility Eric won’t be able to hold onto the place.
Toby doesn’t know that yet. Besides, he’s busy because he’s been commissioned to turn his book into a play. (His friends tell him that they’d rather see it as a musical.)
If it happens, Toby’s newfound friend Adam McDowell would love to be in it. Adam just might get what he wants, considering how his life has gone. After Toby hears the specifics, you’ll agree with him that Adam’s luck is in the “one in a billion” range.
The young man has been pretty lucky in lust, too. His long recounting about his experiences makes Toby interrupt with “Stop it!” before immediately adding “Go on!”
While Toby is becoming friendlier with Adam, into Eric’s life comes Walter Poole. His longtime lover of 36 years has died. Although they’d started their relationship before Eric was born, now the young man and the senior citizen bond. An upstate house will figure mightily in their relationship, too.
In giving his history with his longtime lover, here’s Paul Hilton again, maneuvering beautifully through a speech that’s 1,719 words long. (Thanks, press agent Maral Chouljian, for sending an electronic script that facilitated this calculation.) It leads to the discussion and a veritable fugue that powerfully and unforgettably end Part One’s first act – the one that the rest of the event cannot surpass.
Coming in second is a scene that will haunt those who haven’t seen LONGTIME COMPANION, the 1989 movie about the first eight years of the AIDS crisis. Frankly, that film did better because it gave us characters we’d come to care about during its 100-minute length. Lopez instead hastily brings on people we’ve never seen before. He still manages to make an impact, yes, but not as searing as LONGTIME COMPANION’s.
The entire marathon is entirely performed on a rising-and-falling platform that almost fills the length and width of the stage. There’s no scenery to speak of, but seven-time Tony-winner Bob Crowley has been around long enough to know that when a cast is literally up against a wall, the bricks and mortar should be painted black. That makes everyone stand out, which should happen with a stand-out cast.
As Adam, Samuel H. Levine does exceptionally in going from a seemingly nice guy to one who’s too big for his jockstrap. You’ll see him again when he doubles as Leo, a rent boy whom Toby hires. If you were to go to a rest room during the show (and you’ll probably need to) and returned when Leo was making his first appearance, you’d recognize Levine but would immediately know that he was portraying another character. When an actor can be that skillful in creating a different person, he’s a talent with whom to be reckoned. Levine may give you chills when he tells what Leo learned – and what he didn’t – when he was 14.
Just when you think that a woman’s appearance in THE INHERITANCE is as unlikely as one in THE BOYS IN THE BAND or LOVE! VALOUR! COMPASSION! Lois Smith enters.
If Lopez’s stage direction is to be completely honored, Smith is miscast. Her character Margaret is said to be in her seventies; Smith is in her ninetieth year – and is still easily in the ninetieth percentile of great contemporary actresses. (In future editions of the script, will Lopez delete the mention of age in her honor?)
Smith portrays a mother whose teenage son told her that he was gay; she insisted, as so many parents have, that he was merely “confused.” This is just the beginning of a 1,455-word monologue (thanks again, Maral) that’s interrupted only a few times for quick comments. What Margaret relates may strike many as a familiar story, but even those will be riveted along with everyone else at Smith and Lopez’s achievements.
Just when you think that Lopez has covered everything, you’ll see he hasn’t. Toby becomes involved with someone who’s been cast in his play. The man will eventually fall out of love with him and dismiss him curtly (not without cause, mind you). Wouldn’t Toby retaliate by getting him fired? If the producer insisted on retaining him — either because he was sleeping with him or he thought the actor was brilliant — the Toby we’ve come to know would want to enact revenge. We should see that scene.
Part Two, even with its many, many potent scenes, may well flummox you into thinking it’s ending a number of times before it concludes. The first time that Paul Englishby’s music comes in is a suggestion that this is the last scene of the night. No, more will follow – and with music to indicate an ending is nigh.
At least those scenes contain plenty of hilarious gay patois (down to two THE WIZARD OF OZ references). The men also have a humorous discussion on how to define camp and a funnier one still on how gay life has gone mainstream.
If it indeed has, it’s good for THE INHERITANCE. Gay-themed plays, no matter how lauded or beloved, tend to have a shorter shelf-life than plays that center on heterosexual issues. Even ANGELS IN AMERICA, after receiving raves and prizes, ran a comparatively short nineteen months.
So last Saturday, the frequent laughter ringing throughout the house was decidedly masculine. At every intermission, the line for the men’s room was so long that – seriously — guys were allowed to use the less-frequented ladies’ room.
Let’s hope that the lines are of equal lengths in the months to come.