The Inheritance starts with a young man’s desire to share history (lessons) and his quandary of how to begin. Opening favorite novel, Howards End, he changes referencing Helen’s letters, to citing Toby’s voice mails. Permission for this and to use the 1910 book as a template comes directly from on stage author, E.M. Forster, who acts as tutor. (A marvelous Paul Hilton.)
The casually dressed company sits around Bob Crowley’s low, white platform acting as chorus, third person narrators, and specific characters, a technique that can dilute as much as it signifies brotherhood. Rising and receding, it subtly changes perspective.
Unless you’re living under a rock, you probably know this highly celebrated play came from London trailing four Olivier Awards and that it’s been called a twenty-first century Angels in America. Much of it is beautifully written, but Matthew Lopez’s creativity lies in contemporary continuance and adaptation, not breaking new ground.
Six characters are drawn together and torn apart in varied coupling. Walter Poole (Paul Hilton, pitch perfect again) and his wealthy, conservative partner Henry Wilcox (John Benjamin Hickey – robust and authentic) embody the generation who lived “through” AIDS and Stonewall. Walter raised Henry’s kids. (A revealing piece of information.) Henry travels a great deal.
The couple are upstairs neighbors to gentile Eric Glass (Kyle Soller) who has socially conscious employment and hedonist writer-on-the-verge-of-success, Toby Darling (Andrew Burnap). Soller creates a well-grounded, sympathetic portrayal, the quiet center of a cyclone. Burnap is vibrant, but so theatrical, he seems drugged out of his mind 24 hours a day. This is not implausible, but makes a one note performance.
Eric’s parents left him the enormous, rent controlled apartment that facilitates a gracious lifestyle. Like the Schlegels in Howards End, he’s about to lose it. Like the novel’s Mrs. Wilcox, Walter owns a country house. Parallels continue.
Sensing Walter’s loneliness, Eric draws the older man into his circle. The two recognize each other in a way that creates deep bonding. Walter is curious about the new community. What is it like to be alive in the age of preventive medication, to perhaps marry, and watch discrimination laws come to court? (Never fear, this is not a case of rose-colored glasses.) Though Eric and his friends are privy to some of Walter’s past, a large secret abides.
Except for uneducated call boy Leo (Samuel H. Levine), all Eric and Toby’s friends are young, in shape, and good looking. Adam (Samuel H. Levine), the actor serendipitously chosen to star in Toby’s first play, also fits the bill. If this isn’t enough to limit frame of reference, otherwise masterful Director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot) makes the entire young company limp wristed and loose hipped. (Watch as they listen to music.) Surely some masculine gays could’ve been portrayed to better reflect a cross section? Needless to say, exposed bodies are beautiful.
Let us now praise Samuel H. Levine. In his Broadway debut, the actor morphs from forthright Adam who keeps his equilibrium/integrity despite Mac-truck fame, to homeless Leo whose past leaves him fit for nothing but being numbly used and abused in order to survive. A prominent plot device finds the men looking almost like twins.
One of the most visceral scenes in the play is Adam’s uncharacteristic description/reenactment of being gangbanged at a Czech bathhouse. The deftly written parenthesis opens both wounds and questions about dangerous, exalted sex. Levine is magnificent. Both characters move, speak and occupy space distinctively.
Group conversation/references are up to the minute employing recognizable names and politics. Language is often raw, but never feels gratuitous. From orgies to genial dinners, gatherings are evocatively manifest. Within the group, there’s marriage, adoption, a discussion about the meaning of and preference for “camp,” even talk of missing gay bars. “Being gay doesn’t feel remarkable anymore.” Also lust, love, cruelty, abandonment, deception, and redemption.
The play could be successfully edited. There are sections that land pedantic or excessive. These surprise when following something deft and moving. It is, however, an accomplished piece, bravely taken on, engaging, entertaining, disturbing.
Staging is terrific. From tense drumming on the platform to inspired choreography depicting hot sex of all types (no naked bodies touch) to use of space as silent indicator, Stephen Daldry communicates as much visually as he does audibly. While the company are necessarily types, each of the lead six characters emerges very much his own man. The end of Part I and a mirror scene in Part II each leave one breathless.
Margaret (the estimable Lois Smith), appears towards the chronicle’s end, representing the distaff side of compassion. The character is gracefully embedded, though unnecessary. Her involvement with the country house adds another tone. Lopez’s epilogue gives one time to exhale.
Jon Clark’s lighting design is effectively nuanced; Sound by Paul Arditti and Christopher Reid insidiously effective.
Photos by Michael Murphy
Opening: Samuel H. Levine (Adam), Kyle Soller (Eric), Andrew Burnap (Toby)
The Young Vic Production of
The Inheritance by Matthew Lopez
Inspired by the novel Howards End by E.M. Forster
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47th Street