The Inheritance review – ‘it is hard to imagine this play is really as universal as it advertises’

Stephen Daldry's ambitious play loses its momentum

Samuel H. Levine and Andrew Burnap in 'The Inheritance' - Photo by Simon Annand

It is a not unproblematic cliché of gay art and life that desire and culture are passed down between generations. In his book Returning to Rheims, French intellectual Didier Eribon describes sleeping with an older man and, after waking up in his room, perusing the stranger’s personal CD collection. It was there, Eribon recalls, that he first discovered Barbara Streisand. It was also there that he came to understand how listening to her music might be a way of relating to a larger gay community. The encounter, though transitory, was more than just sexual: it was a step towards coming into one’s self and one’s culture, of adopting the practices of gayness or, at least, one specific type of gayness.

This cultural exchange is the main subject of Matthew Lopez’s new two-part epic, currently playing at the Young Vic. Its title, The Inheritance, is the name Lopez gives to that fraught but special relationship between generations of gay men. In a moving scene, in which this is explained, we are told of a history of silence and invisibility throughout which the only way for homosexuals to come to know themselves and others like them was to congregate in urinals and bars. It’s stirring stuff indeed.

Inspired by E.M Forster’s Howards End, the play follows the journey of one couple: thoughtful and sensitive Eric, and egotistical, fame-seeking Toby. The pair start off in love and lust however their bond is marred by the entrance of Adam, a rich and attractive twenty-something, and Walter, a warm-hearted, wise but dying older man. As the unpicking of Eric and Toby’s relationship begins, the narrative spirals outward to include multiple lovers and friends. Hearts are variously broken and fixed, bridges burnt and rebuilt.

The set, designed by Bob Crowley, is a simple raised platform around which the cast sit when not performing. It cleverly evokes a huge table and is used for the staging of several ensemble discussions. The motif reminds us of the primary intention of Lopez’s writing: debate. His is a play about history, community, and family, different homes, and how they are haunted by their residents. It is provocative in its portrayal of the crippling effects of narcissism, the cruelty of New York City, and the horror of AIDS. In fact, it possesses an emotional and thematic breadth that defies easy summarisation and, in turn, invites accusations of unwieldiness.

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Perhaps appropriately for a play about changes over time, The Inheritance is also very long. Coming in two parts and lasting over seven hours, the drama has a muscularity which threatens to batter audiences into submission. Its structure also reminds us of that other AIDS drama in whose shadow it conspicuously lies: Angels in America. This connection is one I am certain Lopez intends for us to draw, not only for favourable comparison, but because his work is full of intertextual references. Having the characters list their predictable favourite books – Giovanni’s Room, Call Me by Your Name, The Swimming Pool – is one amusing moment which was well-received by the large number of gay men in the room. I amongst them recognised the itemised description of my teenage bookshelf and appreciated the characteristic honesty and self-awareness of Lopez’s dialogue, also evident in a shockingly exact anal sex scene and in numerous gags about Grindr.

The inclusion of E.M Forster, the author of Howards End, is the most prominent example of Lopez’s interest in the literary representation of sexuality. Also the writer of Maurice, a classic of the gay canon, Forster begins the show advising Eric, Toby and their friends how to ‘tell their story’, and reappears throughout as a mentor and quasi-preacher on the truths of gay life. His presence, whilst a surprise, helps to clarify the important political and intellectual issues at play. Moreover, the wit and warmth with which he is brought to life by Paul Hilton renders Forster an invaluable figure.

It is in the second-part of this production, as Hilton’s appearances becomes more spare, that the interest wanes. As Lopez dedicates more of his attention to a plot-driven adaptation of his source material, the portrait of gay-life he has built begins to lose its variety and chances of being relatable. Initially establishing itself as a document of modern gay experience, a discussion allowing everyone a seat at the table, The Inheritance slowly reduces to a single narrative modeled on an outdated mode of storytelling. It loses its keen eye for modernity and develops a bizarre obsession with the improbable and specific.

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As an interrogation of identification across ages, The Inheritance is full of repetitions, reflections and foils. However, as Lopez tightens his focus on the plot, the grasp of his material starts to loosen and the identification I knew I was supposed to feel began to default. Particularly given his dubious attempts to cover class (dealt with in extreme and offensive juxtapositions of wealthy Long-Islanders and starving sex workers) and race (white men speaking over their African-American peers about intersectionality), it is hard to imagine that this play is really as accessible or as universal as it advertises.

The two most memorable sequences of the play, both in the first part, are abstract moments which feature multiple voices and bodies onstage. It is here that Lopez and director Stephen Daldry are most successful in capturing some new conception of what it means to be gay. Elsewhere, this production is prone to feel too individualised and somewhat confused. Maybe as part of a younger demographic, it is just not my life that is being put on stage. Or maybe, queer people our age simply demand more subtle, modern and intersectional art. For those weeping during the standing ovation, I have no doubt Lopez’s play is a gift. It is, however, one I do not feel I am qualified or keen enough to inherit.

The Inheritance will be at the Young Vic until 19th May.

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The Inheritance