The Inheritance review – Angels in America meets Howards End

Young Vic, London
Stephen Daldry directs a stellar cast, including Vanessa Redgrave, in a rollercoaster epic about gay men in New York

This is quite something: a two-part, seven-hour play by Matthew Lopez dealing almost exclusively with New York gay men. You could say it’s like Angels in America crossed with Howards End in that it deals with the bitter inheritance of Aids and the spiritual qualities of a house. That bald summary does scant justice, however, to a play that, in Stephen Daldry’s crystalline production, pierces your emotional defences, raises any number of political issues and enfolds you in its narrative.

Lopez’s debt to EM Forster is palpable. There is even a character called Morgan who kickstarts the play by addressing a group of young men and effectively urging them to look in their hearts and write. This prompts a story about a young couple, Eric and Toby, that ripples outward. Eric is a kindly, humane lawyer who lives in a posh Upper West Side apartment. Toby, his longtime lover, is an egotistical, sharp-tongued writer whose success as a novelist and dramatist is based on the denial of his past. Their impending marriage is threatened both by Eric’s loss of the family apartment and by Toby’s fixation on Adam, the charismatic star of his play.

Vanessa Redgrave (Margaret) and Samuel H Levine (Leo) in The Inheritance.
Palpable debt to Forster … Vanessa Redgrave and Samuel H Levine in The Inheritance. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

This leads to the same clash of values that animates Howards End. The liberal Eric is drawn to a real-estate developer – named Henry Wilcox, like the embodiment of materialism in Forster’s book – who has recently lost his own partner, Walter. One of the best and funniest scenes shows Henry shocking a roomful of Eric’s left-leaning friends by declaring he is a Republican. As in Forster’s book, a property is pivotal. Walter always wanted Eric to have an upstate house he owned that, at the height of the Aids epidemic, he turned into a refuge for the dying. We wait to see whether Eric will ever come into his rightful inheritance.

While Lopez’s play has a literary framework, it teems with life and incident: watching it, as a neighbour remarked, is like bingewatching a box-set. It tells multiple stories. One of the most intriguing shows the success-driven Toby becoming involved with a rent boy, Leo, who is not only a lookalike for Adam but also tests the moral probity of all who encounter him. Lopez is also unafraid to periodically stop the plot and clear the stage for an impassioned debate: one of the most intense is about the status of gay culture which, having fought so long against oppression, now finds itself in danger of being co-opted. It is Eric, however, who cuts through the swirling opinions by urging the need to honour the past while living fully in the present.

Binge-worthy … from left at front, John Benjamin Hickey, Kyle Soller and Hubert Burton in The Inheritance.
Binge-worthy … from left at front, John Benjamin Hickey, Kyle Soller and Hubert Burton in The Inheritance. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

This, in a nutshell, is the Forsterian message that emerges from the play. I admired its rollercoaster energy and high entertainment value, but I found its exclusive maleness limiting. The only woman we meet does not appear until the end, when Vanessa Redgrave makes a moving appearance as a mother who belatedly learned to love her gay son and who now cherishes Walter’s rural sanctuary. I also felt occasionally, as with Adam’s graphic description of his orgiastic experience in a Prague bathhouse, that Lopez was exhibiting his own virtuosity at the expense of the character’s believability.

In Daldry’s production, staged on a Bob Crowley set that looks like a stripped Japanese table, the prime emphasis is on narrative clarity. The performances, from a mixed American-British cast, are also exemplary. Kyle Soller conveys every ounce of Eric’s instinctive decency and Andrew Burnap all of Toby’s sad selfishness. Samuel H Levine switches brilliantly between the fast-rising Adam and the sinking Leo and John Benjamin Hickey as Henry embodies the emotional isolation of the stinking rich. But the performance that best epitomises the play’s values is that of Paul Hilton who, as Morgan Forster and Walter, exudes a quiet humanity that suggests respect for the dead needs to be balanced by a love of the living.

• At the Young Vic, London, until 19 May. Box office: 020-7922 2922.

Contributor

Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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