Young Vic, London – until 19 May 2018
How did the first audience members of Angels in America feel at the Mark Taper Forum in California? Did they know it would become a modern classic? Such thoughts and comparisons are natural, inevitable perhaps, considering the closeness in both subject and form that The Inheritance shares with Tony Kushner’s ‘Gay Fantasia’.
Yet Matthew Lopez’s epic two-part play and Stephen Daldry’s sure-footed production feel like an accomplished piece of theatre which is very much interested in the act and art of storytelling. So, to my mind, it doesn’t seem at all hyperbolic to suggest that, aside from the connection to Howards End, Lopez’s play is a worthy successor to those fin de siècle plays of the previous century such as Angels, crafting a kaleidoscopic and philosophical treatise on what it means to live, love and work in the 21st century.
We start with a group of aspiring young writers in modern day New York, discussing their creative struggles with their mentor, Morgan (E.M. Forster). This deliciously meta, quasi-real narrative frames the play within, which is the shaping and reshaping of one of these writers’ novels, itself a contemporary reworking of Forster’s Howards End.
Forster’s presence is a gutsy and rewarding move on Lopez’s part, as ‘Morgan’ frequently butts into the action to question characters’ motives, or to ask them revealing questions. It’s a narrative technique that could seem laboured or cloyingly smug, but Lopez interweaves the multiple dialogues and plotlines with such ease that the result is utterly luminescent and evocative of the psychological and aesthetic realism seen in literary modernism.
The play within opens up a world of utterly engrossing characters. Over an all-too-fleeting seven hours we follow the triumphs and tribulations of Toby, an ambitious if foppish playwright, his modest and kind fiancée Eric, their older friends Walter and Henry who lived through the AIDS epidemic, Adam a wealthy aspiring actor and his unwitting doppelganger, Leo, a prostitute.
I was perplexed when I heard that Lopez was basing his play on Forster’s novel. ‘How can there possibly be a comparative line drawn between an Edwardian reflection on class, manners and posh houses and the legacy of the AIDS epidemic?’ But this most bizarre concept works. Simple as. I enjoyed playing snap with the Lopez and Forster characters, watching their dual plotlines unfold and the miniscule joys of spotting Easter egg references to the original.
But if you think you know how the story ends, think again. Lopez twists the tale; characters are spliced, fates are unexpected. The main uniting factor is Lopez’s evident affection and admiration for Forster; both pieces are united in the exploration of truth, morality, beauty and the self.
There’s so much going on in terms of plot, characters, narrative frames and scale that it would be easy to assume that the writing is merely good in the face of the play’s sheer ambition. But, as well as being a damn clever meditation on the creative process, the writing is also emotionally searing, nuanced and consistent, never glib or rushed. There are numerous standout scenes, monologues and instances of dazzling visual imagery so I want to home in on some specifics to at least try to convey Lopez’s skill. At the end of the first act, Walter has a long monologue about the pain of seeing his friends ravaged by AIDS. When talking about their upstate house which he – against Henry’s will – used as a refuge for the dying, Walter contrasts images of the city burning around him with the burning reds and oranges of the cherry blossom tree in the garden. One is a picture of death and desolation, the other of growth and birth. Much later, when Toby disappears, he realises that ‘I can’t rewind my story. I can only go forward’, and we are prompted to think of that imagery again when Toby weighs up his options: ‘Heal or burn?’
Real estate plays a key but peripheral role in The Inheritance. Henry is a real estate billionaire, owning an apartment in Manhattan, a place in the Hamptons and a house upstate which we learn he gave to Walter in the late eighties/early nineties. Meanwhile, Eric, at the start of the play at least, lives in the rent-controlled apartment that his grandmother lived and died in. It was there that she watched Kennedy’s assassination, Nixon’s resignation and Obama’s election victory. Essentially it was in that apartment that she became an American. Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Between Riverside and Crazy (2015) is similarly set in rent-controlled ‘prime Manhattan real estate’ that would easily fetch ten times its current rate if deregulated. We’re reminded in The Inheritance that partners of the ill were also affected by often losing their homes. Both Lopez and Adly Guirgis, then, paint New York as a city to which people flee and offers the opportunity to form safe communities, only to be threatened, whether by disease, City Hall, or rises in prejudice.
The link between real estate and AIDS is interesting. In 2016, Alexandra Schwartz wrote for The New Yorker that the epidemic occurred simultaneously with the real estate market ‘turn[ing] relentlessly bullish’, with the boroughs that had the highest rate of infection also having the fastest rate of gentrification in the following years. Later she reflects that ‘Whether consciously or not, we build our homes on the graves of others.’ The line seems to have added pertinence in light of this play. Henry gains his billions from the development and exploitation of legacy and its effects on the next generation. Conversely, regarding the duties of community, Walter’s altruism in opening up the doors of his house is a rallying cry for a more socialist approach. In a moving and startling end to part one, the ghosts of a generation of men who died there reconvene to welcome Eric; a reminder of the community lost and what a community can aspire to be.
Daldry must have recognised the play’s potential early on and, along with dramaturg Elizabeth Williamson, has helped shape its current contemporaneity. There are scenes set in the ensuing months after Trump’s inauguration when Eric’s boss, Jasper, campaigns to get him impeached; references to the Public’s controversial production of Julius Caesar; and jokes about Adam battling it out with the likes of Timothée Chalamet and Ben Platt for the lead role in Toby’s play. But whereas in a lesser play contemporary and meta-references such as revering Vanessa Redgrave and bemoaning the length of a play might make you cringe, here it fits in with the play’s consistent, and often wickedly funny, humour.
If The Inheritance was Part One alone it would still be epic in its form. Part Two has more plot to get through but it’s a perfectly measured production by Daldry. This is partly due to Bob Crowley’s bare design which allows the production to remain uncluttered (an aesthetic similar to Ian Rickson’s production of Christopher Shinn’s Against). That’s not to say it’s without unexpected coups, for example when the white clapboard house and cherry tree are perfectly realised, or when the top tier of the pyramidal stage sinks in a symbolic depiction of Trump’s election victory. However, Jon Clark’s lighting also plays a large part in the production’s success. I was rarely aware of it changing and yet I acknowledged its significance in evoking place, whether that’s the blinding lights of Toby’s imagined fame or his actual loneliness when he runs away.
An exceptional company bring a multitude of characters to life, and the use of doubling is cleverly done from a dramaturgical perspective. Samuel H. Levine plays Adam with great subtlety, charting his journey from obsequious and naïve actor to realising the power of his acting skills. His retelling of a time he went to a Prague bathhouse is another heart-in-mouth moment. It’s as if the moment is recreated as a memory: the lights are dingy; we share his nervousness before going into the sauna, his abandon to the momentary euphoria, and his fall back to earth with the dreadful feeling of being contaminated by the bodily fluids that cover him. The sight of the blood and the intensity of the writing is enough to make you feel faint with empathy. But, Levine suggests, perhaps Adam’s acting skills transcend the stage, demonstrative of Lopez’s constant ability to upend his audience and keep us guessing. Levine also sensitively charts Leo’s arc; from reticent homeless escort to falling in love with Toby and losing himself in literature. There’s a scene in which Levine flits at lightning speed between playing Adam and Leo and it is a testament to his performance that I actually forgot I was watching a single actor delivering what is essentially a monologue and became engrossed in the interplay and reaction between the two characters.
Equally as believable is Andrew Burnap as Toby. From shallow playboy intent on fame to burnt out addict in denial, Toby’s story is by turns hilarious, galling and tragic, and Burnap has us in the palm of his hand for the entirety of the wild ride. Although not one of the flashier roles, Kyle Soller as Eric effectively and assuredly carries the play. Soller conveys Eric’s humble wisdom no more so than when he challenges the audience directly about the responsibility of community: ‘If we don’t have conversations with our past, how can we know what our future will be?’
It seems rash to mention awards so soon, but each of Levine, Burnap and Soller could arguably win Best Actor gongs for their roles. Providing stellar support, Paul Hilton morphs between Morgan and Walter with ease, brilliantly carving out their differences but also hinting at a shared lugubrious quality. John Benjamin Hickey is prosaic and unnervingly likable as Henry, positing his contra views with sense, sympathy and, I must admit, logical cohesion. But I’ll allow other reviews to go into more detail into the cast’s work otherwise the task will become to find a variation on a superlative. *ahem*
I’ve barely scratched the surface of the play. There’s much more to explore including the reliability of memory and idealism vs reality, honesty and, as Toby puts it, ‘the inheritance of wisdom, community and self’. Although some plays about writing may seem self-indulgent, Lopez has written an expansive play that grasps the revelation that often it’s only through writing that we can be true to ourselves.
The Inheritance plays at the Young Vic until 19thMay, 2018.
Kyle Soller, Samuel H. Levine and Andrew Burnap in The Inheritance. Photo credit: Simon Annand