Gay epic play connects

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday October 29, 2019
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Gay epic play connects

Catharsis is the purging of the emotional tensions through art. The term, first used by Aristotle describing Greek tragedy's healing effects on audiences, seems apropos for the new play "The Inheritance" by Matthew Lopez, an epic of current gay life in New York performed in two parts, lasting a total of 7.5 hours. Commissioned by Hartford Stage of Connecticut, "Inheritance" had astonishing success last year in London's West End, winning four Olivier (English Tony) awards, including Best New Play. After rave reviews and sold-out runs, it opens on Broadway Nov. 17 with largely the same British cast. Meanwhile, Faber & Faber has published the play ($20), including the West End revisions. All signs point to a smash hit. The Daily Telegraph asserts, "Looking like a modern classic, it may be the most important American play of this century so far."

Captivated by Merchant-Ivory's 1992 film of E.M. Forster's "Howards End," Lopez read the book. After discovering Forster was a closeted gay man, he decided to use it as the loose narrative framework for "Inheritance." He's updated Forster's characters using mostly gay men from different generations replacing straight people from various classes. Lead Eric Glass stands in for Margaret Schlegel, while her sister Helen is reinvented as his boyfriend Toby Darling. An unnamed country house serves a tranquil refuge similar to what Howards End provided in the novel. Forster's intellectual, bohemian, fin de siecle London is transposed into 21st-century, cultured gay urban life. Lopez transforms Forster himself into a character, Morgan, who will help the gay Manhattanites tell their stories and offer advice on their affairs. While Forster is the chief inspiration, American viewers and readers will see a connection with Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize landmark "Angels in America," not only lengthwise, but in its similar themes of the AIDS epidemic and its devastation, intolerance, with use of magical fantasy elements. Lopez' play has fewer literary, mythological, Jewish mysticism, and queer political theory references.

The center of the play is the doomed seven-year relationship between Eric Glass, an activist, and his boyfriend Toby Darling, a narcissistic, damaged, self-destructive, alcoholic writer, whose ingenuous autobiographical novel, now adapted into a play, is opening on Broadway, starring the social-climbing actor Adam, with whom he becomes obsessed. They live in Eric's rent-controlled Upper West Side apartment, inherited from his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor. Eric and Toby break up over Adam.

Eric meets Walter, who talks about his country house, a refuge for his friends with AIDS, cared for as they spend their last days there. The dying Walter tells his longtime partner Henry Wilcox to give the house to Eric, but he ignores the request. But Henry and Eric develop a non-sexual relationship, eventually resulting in marriage. Meanwhile, Adam starts dating the director of Toby's play, and Toby, feeling abandoned, becomes involved with a homeless rent boy, Leo, addicted to crack, who physically resembles Adam. We learn about Toby's sad back-story as well as his grim fate. Eric eventually returns to Walter's house and encounters the only female cast member, Margaret, there. Eric matures and resolves his conflicts with the other characters, leading to the play's healing resolution.

"Inheritance" is a commentary on the debt and responsibility current LGBTQ men owe to their "ancestors," considering the staggering loss and discrimination they suffered. Through AIDS, a whole generation of mentors was lost, not to mention artistic contributions and potential leadership, and both Trumpian politics and economic inequality could undermine our success. Lopez questions whether gay men have become too assimilated. Eric notes, "I miss the feeling that being gay was like being a member of a secret club. In order to fully join, you needed people to help bring you in." The play asks, what is a gay man's place post-epidemic? How does one find community and love in today's tech-driven world?

There's a sense this LGBTQ generation hasn't reconciled itself with the ghosts of the past. An HIV+ character compares Trump to HIV, "a cunning, pernicious retrovirus that has attached himself to the very core of American democracy and is now destroying the American Immune System: journalism, activism, politics, even voting. Like HIV, he is replicating his genetic material from tweet to tweet, from person to person, institution to institution, across the entire nation."

Despite crackling dialogue, the play is too long, especially with lengthy monologues and orations that sound like editorials. "Inheritance" could easily lose an hour and its jolt would remain electrifying. At the end of Act I, Part 1, men with AIDS come out of the shadows and announce their deaths. The comparison with "Angels" is apt, particularly regarding scope, but "Inheritance" lacks "Angels"' magisterial authority and sense of rage. Still, these sharply drawn characters grow on you, and the reader will slowly devour this drama. Lopez re-imagines Forster's famous aphorism, "Only connect," into a final affirmation, "You live." "Inheritance" is a minor triumph, but a triumph nonetheless.