The arrival of The Inheritance at the Barrymore Theatre on Broadway is a momentous homecoming for a play that, despite receiving its world premiere in London last year (first at the Young Vic in March before transferring to the West End's Noel Coward last September), not only belongs in New York City but is also mostly set there. It speaks directly to and about a community that was on the frontline of the AIDS epidemic that swept through the city in the 1980s, and the long shadows that have been cast over both its survivors and successive generations today. Yet if its focus is very specific and particular, it's also a play with a generosity of spirit (not to mention the spirits that also inhabit it) to speak to a much wider constituency.
It has arrived on Broadway already trailing plaudits from London, including four Olivier Award wins (including for 'Best New Play,' 'Best Director' for Stephen Daldry, 'Best Lighting Designer' for Jon Clark, and 'Best Actor' for Kyle Soller, the latter of whom is one of five of the original London company to be reprising his performance on Broadway). London's theatre critics -- who named it their play of the year in the annual Critics Circle Theatre Awards -- all gave it their virtually universal critical approval.
Of course Broadway will have to make up its own mind; but after last year's Tony for Best Play was won by another two-parter British-born epic Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, The Inheritance is in another league again -- and this time about real life events, not fantasy fiction. And seeing it once again on Broadway -- for the third time in its entirety -- I felt even closer to the events it portrays than I've done before. My own first-ever trip to New York in the summer of 1983 coincided with the emergence of this health crisis that initially and inexplicably at the time primarily affected gay men. The first New York Times report on the arrival of the disease -- headlined "Rare cancer that was seen in 41 homosexuals" -- had run just two summers earlier, and it wasn't until 1983 that a news story was run on the paper's front page.
Now it's a play that itself is making headlines. Partly, it is a natural successor to Tony Kushner's fellow two-part epic Angels in America, that first chronicled the early days of HIV/AIDS in the early 1990s. But it is also both more accessible and contained: this play doesn't divert into an extended fantasia, as Angels is subtitled (though some characters emerge from the past), as it mostly provides a domestic portrait of a group of contemporary gay male friends and lovers, wrestling with their lives as actors, writers and other creative pursuits in modern Manhattan.
It may be that for some this is a slightly hermetically sealed, rarefied world of privileged literary-based male lives -- the play contains just one female character (played by Lois Smith), the mother of a deceased gay man who makes an appearance only in the play's final act -- but playwright Matthew Lopez makes them a lively, engaging troupe that we become fully invested in.
The play revolves around two long-term couples, who also happen to live in the same Upper West Side mansion block: Eric and his aspiring writer boyfriend Toby, who've been together for seven years and have a rent-controlled apartment there; and Henry (a self-made billionaire) and Walter, who've been together for 36 years. As played by the aforementioned Kyle Soller, Andrew Burnap, John Benjamin Hickey and Paul Hilton (all reprising performances they originally gave in London), they make a fully inhabited and frequently moving quartet, while Samuel H. Levine (also seen in London) is also brilliant and revealing as the young actor who comes between Eric and Toby. They are joined by a superb new New York cast.
A somewhat contrived but dramatically eloquent framing device sets it up as a meta-writing exercise, as we begin by watching the members of a creative writing class constructing this story, in which they are guided by the presence of celebrated gay writer E.M Forster (whose novel Howards End is credited as inspiring the play) and morph into the characters of the play.
But legacies of the past hang heavily over the present, not just in the creative impulses that have fuelled this alternately simmering and shattering play; amongst its many themes are the generation of gay men we lost to the crisis and what that missing link to the past means to us now.
As it plays out over two separate parts that between them run for nearly six and a half hours, a demanding but commanding theatrical experience envelops us that is notable as much for its depth as its profound dignity.
Stephen Daldry's stripped-back production, played out on Bob Crowley's stark wooden platform of a set, is beautifully fluid and profoundly beautiful: there's a heart stopping moment at the end of the first half that I don't want to spoil by revealing what happens, but it has reduced me, even when I knew what was coming, to sobs of grief (shared by many around me).
This is a haunting play, in every sense; and quietly devastating. Parts of our history may have been lost forever; but this reclamation of it is making history as the most important gay play of this generation.
(Photo by Matthew Murphy)
"Ardent aspiration glows in every moment of Matthew Lopez's The Inheritance, which opened on Sunday at the Ethel Barrymore Theater. That is, to be sure, a whole lot of moments."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"At its best, as in the unforgettable sequence that concludes the first half, it taps into a profound sense of loss and a yearning for connection. If progress has come at a cost, The Inheritance is a play about remembering and honoring one’s debts. As such, it feels—to quote one of its characters—like a necessary haunting."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
"Matthew Lopez’s empathetic drama is simply — well, not so simply — a moving call for an intergenerational conversation, using a tale of modern-day, young gay men whose lives collide with that of their older peers. It’s also a very long one, with two separate parts, each running more than three hours. Luckily, there are three nearby Starbucks you can reach during intermissions. In a show that’s as lengthly as a flight to Europe, there’s going to be a lot of plot. But thanks to director Stephen Daldry’s sprint of a staging, which sets the play on an elegant, bright wooden platform, The Inheritance clips along."
Johnny Oleksinski for New York Post
"The play is both wonderfully funny and exquisitely poignant, but its real achievement is the deft hand with which it connects multiple generations of gay men, underscoring the importance of sharing stories and keeping the past alive."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter
"The real hero of The Inheritance, Matthew Lopez's thoughtful, moving and painfully funny play, is E.M. Forster, the celebrated English author of “Howards End,” “A Room with a View,” “A Passage to India,” and “Maurice,” that last a gay-themed novel published after his death in 1970. It’s quite the literary thrill to find the great writer alive and onstage (and called here by his middle name, Morgan) in Lopez’s free-form borrowings from and musings on “Howards End.”"
Marilyn Stasio for Variety