“Angels in America” has cast a long shadow: Tony Kushner’s fantastical dramatization of the AIDS crisis has long seemed near definitive. But over six acts and seven hours at London’s Young Vic, Matthew Lopez’s sweeping two-parter “The Inheritance” not only picks up its mantle, it might just measure up. Like “Angels in America,” “The Inheritance,” directed by Stephen Daldry, is a vast, imperfect and unwieldy masterpiece that unpicks queer politics and neoliberal economics anew. In addressing the debt gay men owe to their forebears, it dares to ask whether the past hasn’t also sold the present up short.
If Lopez steps out of Kushner’s shadow, he does so by constantly acknowledging his lineage — one character crashes a party in white wings — but his play owes more to another gay writer: E. M. Forster. A very loose retelling of his novel “Howard’s End,” “The Inheritance” relocates its plot to a group of gay men in contemporary New York. In fact, Forster himself floats through the action, schooling the company in the art of telling stories. Paul Hilton plays him upright and uptight, a tweedy, nasal presence in a sea of easygoing young men. The contrast almost encapsulates the whole as an illustration of how far we’ve come.
The center of “The Inheritance” — if it has one — is the doomed relationship between Eric Glass and Toby Darling. Both in their late 20s/early 30s, they live in a spacious rent-controlled Upper West Side apartment handed down by Eric’s late grandmother. While Eric (Kyle Soller) thinks himself “painfully ordinary,” Andrew Burnap’s preening Toby deems himself astonishing: He’s adapting his acclaimed, supposedly autobiographical debut novel for the Broadway stage. It’s not long before they break up over his leading man, Adam McDowall (Samuel H. Levine), a twentysomething who was adopted into astonishing privilege.
All gay men are, according to “The Inheritance.” All three of characters live openly, their friends marry and adopt, and none of them are affected by AIDS. However, as Eric forges a friendship with his frail neighbor Walter (a birdlike Paul Hilton), he comes to appreciate the agonies his generation faced, the friends lost, the fears faced down, the hostility encountered day by day.
While Lopez lays out the price paid for this generation’s gilded lifestyles, he also draws a parallel between the rigid class system of Edwardian England and the rampant inequality that defines our own age. His characters range from Walter’s billionaire partner (and Republican donor) Henry Wilcox to a homeless rent boy addicted to crystal meth named Leo. Acknowledging the enormous social progress made on civil rights — not only since the closeted Forster’s day, but from Stonewall to equal marriage in under half a century — “The Inheritance” also suggests society’s slipped back. Indeed, Lopez asks whether the two cancel each other out, whether equal rights count for anything without equal opportunities. At moments, poverty seems a plague of its own. Anxiety is still killing young men in droves.
Occasionally the play opens out into ideological debate — one puts assimilation against appropriation, another asks if social and economic liberalism are intractable — but for the most part, it makes its arguments structurally. It’s a beautifully patterned play, full of echoes and reflections, and over the course of seven hours, you see communities dwindle, friendships splinter and split and tender care swapped out for financial assistance. It is, above all, a damning indictment of individualism; the play’s every relationship effectively an economic arrangement, prostitutes and kept husbands alike.
Lopez even goes as far to draw a line from AIDS to Trump, wondering whether that plague didn’t rob America of a political antidote. In the thousands of gay men that lost their lives, it’s quite possible one, two, ten or more might have gone on to change the world. They weren’t a lost generation, but a lost demographic — an entire body politic laid to waste by disease and committed to the ground.
Daldry directs with a gliding theatricality, and his minimalist production might have been passed down by Peter Brook. A chorus of statuesque young men watch the action from the edges of Bob Crowley’s platform stage, which rises and falls, sometimes a huge communal table, sometimes a marble crypt or memorial. They tell the story collaboratively, squabbling over the story’s details or hopping into roles, but always playing together. Props are chucked on, moments hammed up, and the tone is one of boyish conviviality: a huge human story conjured from nothing.
It’s that form which really elevates “The Inheritance.” Lopez has, in effect, written the great American novel as a stage play, and it allows him to double down on Forster’s famous maxim: “Only connect!” He retains the individual empathy of literary fiction, taking us into his characters’ inner lives, alongside the collective experience of public performance.
At the same time, however, the disjuncture between story and art-form adds a knowing artifice that works wonders. If he diagnoses the problem of artistic inheritance, alluding to an array of his own cultural appropriations (including a cameo by “Howard’s End” star Vanessa Redgrave), Lopez manages to push past the problems of cool postmodernism. He gets away with narrative neatness and glossy dialogue by acknowledging it as such and, while “The Inheritance” knows it’s too tidy to be true, it insists that the tidiest of tales can still contain truth. To truly connect, we first have to feel.
Thankfully, it’s beautifully acted throughout. Soller elevates Eric far beyond his nondescript exterior and suggests a man who’s not brittle but malleable as blown glass. Burnap glints with the vanity of the self-made man, while making clear the self-loathing that comes from seeing through one’s own lie, while Samuel H. Levine revels in the reflections of two characters: one privileged enough to concoct suffering, the other so stuck he can only endure it. Each plays a part in a devastating day’s theater — a born-again classic descended from “Angels.”