After its awards-laden engagements at the Young Vic and on the West End in London, Matthew Lopez’s “The Inheritance: Part One & Part Two” opened Sunday at Broadway’s Barrymore Theatre, all six-plus hours of it. Under the playwright’s name on the title page, the Playbill credit reads, “inspired by the novel ‘Howards End’ by E.M. Forster.” Perhaps space did not allow for Lopez to credit “The Boys in the Band,” “Longtime Companion,” “Love! Valour! Compassion!” and “Angels in America,” not to mention “Stella Dallas” and “Youngblood Hawke.” Yes, they write them like they used to — only longer.
“The Inheritance” isn’t a great play or even a very good play, but Lopez’s opus is compellingly watchable in the way that old so-bad-they’re-good movies are: Finger-snapping one-liners and dramatic fireworks explode throughout as logic and character development are abandoned. At the helm is the perfect director, Stephen Daldry, the theater’s version of Douglas Sirk. If anyone knows how to make pulpy dialogue an even deeper shade of purple, it’s Daldry. Despite the play’s lengthy running time, you will be riveted watching this lurid, weepy, pandering, derivative, and very grand soap opera.
Before we get to how Lopez lifts from both “Stella Dallas” and “Youngblood Hawke,” let’s begin with his credited inspiration. First up, Forster is a character in “The Inheritance.” He is exhumed from the dead to help one of the play’s characters write a novel, which ends up being titled “The Inheritance.” Paul Hilton portrays Forster with real Leslie Howard detachment. Considering Lopez’s take on “Howards End,” the dead novelist’s reserve is completely warranted.
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For instance, Forster’s sisters in “Howards End,” Margaret and Helen, are now Lopez’s very modern same-sex lovers Toby (Andrew Burnap, being more decadent than Helmut Berger in “The Damned”) and Eric (Kyle Soller, being more noble than Norma Shearer in anything). Updating these two Edwardian characters to make them gay men living in modern-day Manhattan is a stretch that snaps the story apart to spectacular effect in Part Two. And the sex change is the least of it.
A few years ago, Hollywood released a disastrous movie remake of “The Women.” Because its makers updated the story to the present, the female characters were given careers. Those jobs outside the home destroyed Clare Boothe Luce’s polemic. Providing them a livelihood freed these women from men, hence no story. That’s basically the problem with turning Margaret into a professional gay man living in contemporary Manhattan. Whether the character is named Margaret or Eric, making her/him independent of a wealthy man turns the character into a fool rather than a victim bent on being delivered.
In “The Inheritance,” Eric works for a “social justice entrepreneur.” In other words, he’s a hardcore liberal. He’s also an insatiable bottom who prances about, wiggling his butt (no choreographer credited), because he loves getting screwed by Toby. Lopez’s view of gay men is very structured. There are bottoms and there are tops. “Versatile” is outside this writer’s vocabulary. Anyway, Toby is a real top who has written an autobiographical novel that’s described as a gay “Catcher in the Rye.” Unlike J.D. Salinger, Toby is turning his novel into a play destined for Broadway and possibly the movies. As if that weren’t enough to distinguish Toby from J.D., Lopez titles the novel and the play “Loved Boy.”
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The much more hilariously engrossing part of “The Inheritance” is Toby’s story line, which diverges most from “Howards End.” While his Helen counterpart in “Howards End” ends up unwed and pregnant, Toby clearly doesn’t have that option. Instead, he dumps Eric to fall in love with Adam (the occasionally naked Samuel H. Levine), a young actor cast to headline “Loved Boy,” who promptly trades in Toby for the show’s director. Unlike most legit debutantes, Toby is so wildly successful that he has no friends in Manhattan, meaning he must pay a hustler (the double-cast Levine) $400 dollars to bed him and tell him he’s “loved.” Unsatisfied, Tobe flees to that faraway place called Fire Island, where he takes a house, acquires all sorts of friends who apparently never heard of his Broadway leprosy and throws an orgy that leaves one young man’s anus so bloody (gasps from the Barrymore audience) that he returns to Toby’s parties every weekend for the rest of the summer (nods from the Barrymore audience). In other words, when these gay characters drone on too long about being victims, Lopez punctures that monotony by giving us Mike Pence’s vision of Fire Island. Kudos to Bob Crowley’s Ninth Circle of Hell set design, Jon Clark’s fiery lighting, Paul Englishby’s cacophonous disco music and whoever runs the fog machine. Also, how do I get on Toby’s email blast for next summer?
This entire novel-to-Broadway/sell-your-soul plot is ripped from 1964’s “Youngblood Hawke,” a guilty-pleasure movie that stars James Franciscus as a young writer on the make from the South, just like Toby. My fave line from “Youngblood Hawke” comes when the jaded Genevieve Page asks the naïve Franciscus, “So, what should I call you? Youngy or Bloody?”
Lopez tops that howler of a question with a scene that replicates the ending of “Stella Dallas,” the sudsy moment when Barbara Stanwyck sneaks a peek of her daughter’s wedding through the mansion window. In “The Inheritance,” the HIV-infected hustler somehow finds the strength to drag himself to the Booth Theatre (Lopez doesn’t settle for the Cort or the Nederlander) to see his ex-boyfriend’s play. No, it’s not raining a la “Stella Dallas.” But it’s winter and freezing and the hustler can’t afford Stanwyck’s warm coat and cap despite charging $400-a-night fees for tricking with Toby and billionaires like Eric’s billionaire fiancé. (I’ll get to Eric’s story in a moment.) There’s no money to see “Loved Boy.” But ever ready with an MGM miracle, Lopez has the hustler run into the show’s star in Shubert Alley; he’s his doppelganger, Adam, and they have a conversation with themselves (remember, Levine is double-cast). And the two men bond! Playing twins in “A Stolen Life,” Bette Davis never got a scene anywhere near this juicy and contrived.
Lopez’s drawer of gothic gay horrors simply overflows. Vito Russo’s “The Celluloid Closet” lambasted 1960s Hollywood for littering the screen with gay suicides. Lopez snatches one of those for Part Two of “The Inheritance.” Maybe “The Children’s Hour” is another of his inspirations?
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Toby’s story makes sense in a Hollywood hokum kind of way. It’s extravagant, but it makes comic sense. Eric’s story, on the other hand, is pure queer baloney. Despite his working for a “social justice entrepreneur,” he falls in love with Henry (John Benjamin Hickey), a Manhattan billionaire who voted for Trump and, worse, refuses to have premarital sex with his anally fixated fiancé. Does Henry still read the “Baltimore Catechism”? Is Eric’s need to be sodomized a sign of extreme masochism? (More Mike Pence thinking here.) This no-sex revelation is Lopez’s biggest shocker, and so off the wall that Margaret from “Howards End” should sue if she were gay and a real person. Forster’s Margaret marries the rich capitalist Henry Wilcox for a variety of reasons having to do with her being a British woman from the early 20th century who has no career and inherits only a few hundred pounds a year. Plus, Wilcox is a respected man, albeit a prig, in old London society, which was pretty much nothing but prigs.
So why on earth is Eric sticking around with his billionaire if not to get plowed on a regular basis? And only slightly less important, an Ayn Rand capitalist would be a total pariah in Eric’s world of pious Hillary-voting homosexuals led by a “social justice entrepreneur.” (These three words are the play’s most original.) The one thing Eric’s Henry has going for him, especially as played by Hickey, is that he’s an adult man. He’s not one of the silly, giddy, giggly little twinks inhaling helium who comprise Eric’s circle of friends. No offense to young women, but this queer gaggle makes a middle-school girls’ volleyball team look downright dour in comparison. Mart Crowley put one Emory in “The Boys in the Band.” “The Inheritance” is rife with such lively clichés. Among them, the actor Arturo Luis Soria manages to be limp from the toe knuckles up.
In interviews, William Friedkin has said that he wishes he’d toned down Cliff Gorman’s Emory in the film version of “Boys.” If only Daldry had followed that advice. His direction of “The Inheritance” has the actors showing every ounce of their effort. Since Broadway likes to honor the most acting rather than the best acting, the Tonys may have to expand its best featured actor category to accommodate all the flop-sweat on the Barrymore stage.
The exceptions are Hickey and Lois Smith, who shows up near the end of to deliver an 11 o’clock monologue. “The Inheritance” features many such spill-your-guts arias, like Paul’s in “A Chorus Line” only less restrained. It’s a convention that cuts down on actual character development. Smith plays Margaret, the caretaker of the house in the country that Eric should have inherited from the Manhattan billionaire’s first boyfriend (the double cast Hilton) but doesn’t — until he finally does take ownership. (The play follows “Howards End” closely here.) Smith recites a line or two written by Forster then breaks into her long dissertation about being a Southern homophobe who disowned her dead gay son before she could experience a major moral overhaul regarding God’s punishment, i.e., AIDS. Lopez’s inspiration for Margaret is probably the Mormon-bigot-parent-turned-beatified-homophile Hannah Pitt from “Angels in America.” These repentant mommy figures are designed to make the LGBTQ audience feel “loved,” to borrow from Toby’s dictionary.
Part One of “The Inheritance” makes a major bow to “Longtime Companion,” Part Two ends with something from “Love! Valour! Compassion!” When the Tony nominating committee meets, will “The Inheritance” be deemed eligible for best new play or best revival?