Regional Reviews: Boston
Gathered before us, a group of young queer people, passing around a copy of E.M. Forster's novel "Howards End." As one young man, a writer, brainstorms how to begin telling his story, he summons the spirit of Forster himself to the stage–and starts to rework "Howards End" into his own treatise on being gay in today's America.
This is where Matthew López starts his play The Inheritance, a lively, emotionally resonant, and sometimes overstuffed tribute to the stories handed down of our past. Presented in two parts over seven hours, this play invites easy comparison to Tony Kushner's landmark Angels in America, but López has different ambitions, telling a work that is ultimately more personal than political. The pleasure of López's writing is in his characters: each yearning for something greater, many combating their own helplessness, some moving toward self-discovery.
The setting is New York City, at the end of the Obama administration. Marriage equality has passed; progress feels tangible. The future is limitless. A century after the events of "Howards End," López transforms the novel's two leading sisters (the rational romantic Margaret and the impetuous Helen) into a gay couple in their early thirties: Eric Glass, lifelong New Yorker and old soul; and Toby Darling, published author and soon-to-be playwright. We meet them at a crossroads–Eric is about to lose his rent-controlled apartment, while Toby's career is on the rise as he prepares for the first production of his new play.
We follow Eric and Toby's lives as the foundation of their relationship cracks. Two switched bags of books at the Strand lead to a friendship with Adam, an aspiring twentysomething actor who earns his way into starring in Toby's play. Meanwhile, Eric befriends a wealthy older man in his building, Walter, in the last year of his life. Walter sees in Eric a potential heir to his neglected country house–the spiritual successor to the estate that gives Forster's novel its title. As Eric's fascination with the house grows, he learns more of its past, as a safe haven for many men dying of AIDS at the height of the epidemic.
I saw The Inheritance when it opened on Broadway in 2019, and I'm pleased to say that the work is more compelling in the intimacy of Paul Daigneault's staging at SpeakEasy. We are part of a communal experience, sitting on three sides of a narrow stage. We're close enough to feel we're eavesdropping on these characters' most private moments–their desires, their sexual encounters, rejection and heartbreak. It's in these moments when López's characters, literally and figuratively, bare themselves to us.
"Who are we? And more importantly: who will we become?" Eric Glass asks his friends. It's the central question López seeks to answer. What does it mean for this generation to be gay or queer? What is their responsibility to the past? To hear stories passed down about the unfathomable devastation AIDS wrought, without experiencing such loss firsthand? To live a life openly on the backs of ancestors who fought for their rights?
To answer these questions, López focuses almost exclusively on a narrow subset of gay men: young professionals and middle-aged urbanites, largely homogeneous, all of whom seem to exist in their own New York bubble. Eric describes himself as "terminally middle class," but that feels disingenuous; he's inherited substantial privilege growing up and continuing to occupy his grandparents' rent-controlled Upper West Side apartment. He is not rich, of course, like Republican billionaire Henry Wilcox, but Henry is also the least fleshed-out of the group, almost feeling like a plot device mirroring his namesake from "Howards End" more than a real character.
We're also told how special Eric Glass is. But as written, he can be less interesting than the people surrounding him. Still, Eddie Shields is ideal as Eric, giving him an edge that brings all his insecurities to the surface. He has a sharp tongue ready to employ when threatened, but beneath it all, he's a romantic at heart, on a quest to find real connection.
Around him, director Paul Daigneault has assembled a uniformly excellent ensemble of actors to bring this story vividly to life. Mark H. Dold is a standout as both E.M. Forster and Walter, projecting a wisdom that grounds the play in something real. Jared Reinfeldt is deliciously charismatic as the self-infatuated Toby Darling, bringing out the deeply damaged soul beneath Toby's preening, self-destructive exterior. At the performances I attended, Mishka Yarovoy was sweet and sensitive in the dual role of Adam and Leo for one performance; Luke Sabracos, also good, filled in as his understudy for the other performance.
Even if López's take on modern gay America is narrow in scope, his spirit is generous. He empathizes with these men, no matter how insular or fallible they may be. The play now feels like something of a period piece, spanning from 2015 to 2018, written before another pandemic struck the world. Despite its length, The Inheritance is at its essence a small story of gay men finding their place in a greater history. This works beautifully at SpeakEasy, in a production that's poetic in its simplicity and gripping in its immediacy.
These qualities really come through in two haunting monologues that bookend the play, the first given to Walter early in Part One. Walter recalls his courtship of Henry Wilcox, a blissful relationship changed forever when, at the height of the epidemic, he cares for a friend dying of AIDS at his country house. Then, near the end of Part Two, the caretaker Margaret Avery (an excellent Paula Plum) completes the story by divulging her own connection to Walter's house and to the epidemic.
It is a story that inspires anger but also compassion, a vital moment of catharsis. There's so much more of this story to tell; but for now, these chapters are in good hands at SpeakEasy.
The Inheritance, presented by by SpeakEasy Stage Company, runs through June 11, 2022, at Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., Boston MA. Tickets can be purchased at speakeasystage.com, by phone at 617-933-8600, or in person at the Boston Center for the Arts box office.