Seven hours: It’s a runtime so outrageous, so almost unthinkably decadent, only Angels and boy wizards have dared to go there on Broadway before. It’s also approximately how long it takes to fly from New York to London, where the Manhattan-set Inheritance made its much-lauded West End debut last year.
But Matthew Lopez’s sprawling two-part drama is nothing if not ambitious — a funny, tender, frequently maddening mosaic of interwoven characters, eras, and Big Ideas that both exhausts and exhilarates the viewer, more than once within the same scene.
Built around the framework of E.M. Forster’s classic 1910 novel Howards End, with the frequent interventions and time-traveling wisdom of Forster himself (a conceit that feels clever, if not in the end strictly necessary), the main story traces the modern-day slings and arrows of some dozen gay men’s fortunes, beginning in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.
Eric Glass (Kyle Soller), a sweet-natured political activist, and Toby Darling (Andrew Burnap), a preening novelist and aspiring playwright, are lovers clearly looking for different things, even after seven years together: Eric wants comfort, stability, maybe marriage; Toby wants fame, excitement, and always one more cocktail — though he is also very fond of the comforts provided by Eric’s rent-stabilized apartment on the Upper West Side.
They, and a Greek chorus of friends (nearly all from the original London run, as is most of the cast, and all outstanding in multiple roles) gather round Forster (an arch, mustachioed Paul Hilton), who appears as a sort of Ghost of Gay-dom Past. They tease and sometimes pointedly critique him for sublimating his sexuality for most of his life; he offers wisdom and advice, and seems to get comfortable very fast with the idea of 21st-century amenities like voicemail Grindr, and Fire Island white parties.
There are two other elder — though no, like Forster, supernaturally so — statesmen in the young men’s lives: the middle-aged billionaire Henry Wilcox (John Benjamin Hickey) and his longtime companion Walter (also played by Hilton, sans British accent). Together they provide a different kind of conscience: A reminder that the recent past is littered with the ghosts of boys just like the ones onstage, stolen in their prime by the AIDS virus — something they all think of now not as a death sentence but a possible diagnosis to be held off by PrEP or managed, with the right medications, for decades.
One of the play’s most central storylines is Eric and Toby’s mutual infatuation with a young man named Adam (Samuel H. Levine), a wide-eyed child of privilege who stumbles into their world and later becomes heavily involved in the making of Toby’s first play. Levine also appears as Leo, a hard-luck rent boy who finds his own essential place in the group. Levine has an earnest, capable presence in both roles, though he never quite makes sense as the object of wild desire he’s meant to be.
It’s hard too because Eric and Toby are played with such vivid charm and life force by Soller and Burnap, respectively; they anchor the story emotionally, even as actors like Jordan Barbour (as the play’s fiery political conscience) and Arturo Luis Soria (as its sashaying id) supply their own fireworks. (Veteran actress Lois Smith also brings lovely, low-key warmth to a brief turn in Part 2, though the action already feels a little overstuffed by the time she arrives).
The staging by Bob Crowley (Carousel, The History Boys) is spare almost to the point of scarcity — just a large wooden platform, around which most of the actors lounge and debate and drape themselves, shoeless — though that only tends to make it more effective when the occasional set piece (a doll-sized house, a strobe-lit dance party) does move in.
Lopez’s aim seems to be nothing less than a sweeping state of the union on what it means to be a gay man in the last 200 years (or at least one living very close the center of Western civilization), and the legacy of shame and loss and learning to love oneself that comes with that inheritance. There are many times he puts that message across beautifully, maybe none more so than in the final moments of Part 1.
It’s the playwright’s prerogative to tell his story at whatever length and clip he wants to, of course, and director Stephen Daldry, a two-time Tony winner (for Billy Elliot and An Inspector Calls) also many times recognized for his work on screen (The Crown, The Reader, The Hours) corrals his cast — whose excitability and overlapping dialogue onstage can sometimes feel like herding cats — beautifully.
But there’s a distinct swerve from drama to melodrama in the second half that dilutes a good part of the power the first has built, and a general fatigue that even the reams of snappy repartee and intra-character intrigue can’t quite prevent from seeping in.
There’s a sense that a story of this scope could easily have been made into some kind of limited-series television event, with its long-thread plot lines and dialogue that often swerves between wry Bravo bitchery (tossed-off references to Broad City and Truvada) and HBO issue-drama prestige (all those shades of the original Gay Fantasia).
In the end, The Inheritance is a play whose cup runneth over in so many often glorious ways that almost every sip yields something — even if it might have been served just as well (or that much better) in a shorter, stronger pour. B+