The Inheritance may not be the best play of the Broadway season, but it is certainly the most play. Matthew Lopez’s drama (just arrived in New York after winning much acclaim in London) runs for six and a half hours, in two separate evenings. It revolves around a group of contemporary gay New Yorkers, who are grappling with the legacy of AIDS and how the gay community should come to terms with a tragedy that defined so much of an earlier generation’s experience. The play is packed with characters, soap opera, sex, ghosts, showy monologues, movie trivia, political debates (it takes place around the time of Trump’s election), plus a literary framing device starring E.M. Forster, on whose novel Howards End the play is very loosely based.
In its subject matter, its two-part structure, and its epic ambitions, The Inheritance can’t help but recall Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. It suffers by comparison, but I don’t want to be unfair. Lopez has managed a big canvas with a good deal of skill. He can write affecting lyrical passages, and he pulls off at least one haunting coup-de-theatre, at the end of the first play. (That’s where the ghosts come in.) Stephen Daldry’s production is spare and powerful, and the acting, at least in the major roles, is first rate, particularly Kyle Soller, rock-solid as Eric, a political activist who is about to be kicked out of his rent-controlled Upper West Side apartment, and Andrew Burnap, as Toby, the flamboyantly neurotic writer with whom he has had a long-term relationship that will end during the course of the play.
But my, what an overstuffed, rambling six and a half hours this is. It’s rare to see a contemporary play with such devotion to old-fashioned plot, but Lopez could give Thackeray a run for his money. New characters keep getting introduced, and old ones drop out. The literary framing device seems unnecessary — and is pretty much abandoned halfway through. A band of Eric and Toby’s friends, who provide a sort of Greek chorus for the action (they’re on stage most of the time), are as stereotyped and over-the-top as anything from Boys in the Band. There’s way too much of that trendy stylistic device in which characters narrate the action even as it’s taking place. The ostentatiously explicit sex talk seems inserted mainly for shock value.
Of course, it’s hard to be too critical of a play that so earnestly (and at times movingly) deals with the tragic legacy of AIDS. Still — forgive me for what I must point out — the subject is hardly new to the theater, and Lopez’s treatment of it is hardly subtle. At one point, an older character tries to make Eric understand the devastating impact that AIDS had a generation earlier by asking him to name his best friends — and then pronouncing each of them dead. Eric is shaken. So, apparently, are many in the audience. But it struck me as an awfully facile way of making an awfully obvious point. Nor is it quite plausible that it would so shock a worldly, intelligent gay man in 2016 New York City. Eric may not have lived through the AIDS crisis, but hasn’t he at least seen Angels in America?