There’s one scene in “The Inheritance,” the upcoming two-part epic that took London by storm, that will benefit from the show’s transfer to Broadway. It’s a long dinner sequence that unfolds at Peter Luger, the venerable Brooklyn restaurant that’s known for its dry-aged beef and heart attack-inducing portions.
“I expect people in the New York audience to let out a little moan of envy and recognition because they know it’s the greatest steak house in the world,” says John Benjamin Hickey, a co-star in both the U.K. and upcoming New York productions.
But the cast and crew believe that the play will resonate with more than just foodies when it touches down on the Great White Way. Though it found critical and commercial success in London, “The Inheritance” is a very New York story. It centers on a group of gay Manhattanites who are primarily in their 20s and 30s, charting their professional triumphs and setbacks as well as their tangled romantic lives.
But it’s concerned with more than those interpersonal dramas. It’s also intended to spark a larger conversation about what a younger generation owes to the gay rights activists who came before them — the men who endured the worst of the AIDS crisis. It’s a virus that knows no borders, of course, but also one that disproportionately impacted the five boroughs. To date, more than 100,000 New Yorkers have died from AIDS-related causes, and the city was harder hit by the disease than anywhere else in the U.S.
“New York felt like it was ground zero of the epidemic,” says “Inheritance” playwright Matthew Lopez. “I’ve always said that New York City is both the most alive city and also the most expensive graveyard in the world. There are so many ghosts here.”
Hickey and Lopez sat down with Variety in a Times Square studio during a break from rehearsals for the show, which began previews in September and officially opens Nov. 17. Both are New Yorkers, but like many of the characters in the play, they hail from different generations of gay Americans. Lopez is 42 and Hickey is 56, and though just 14 years separate them, they say their experiences of the AIDS crisis were markedly different.
Lopez was a teenager growing up in the Florida Panhandle during the darkest days of the epidemic. He heard reports about relatives who were in New York, whereas Hickey, a prolific theater actor at the time, was working in the city as the death toll rose. “My 20-something friends are living a life that we never even dreamed possible, and I’m talking about a life on [anti-HIV medication] PrEP and all of the things that come with that,” Hickey says. “You look at that generation and think maybe they don’t know exactly what they missed — and there’s great sadness attached to that, and that’s what this play expressly is about.”
Lopez found the inspiration for the story in the most unlikely of places, E.M. Forster’s “Howards End.” “The Inheritance” reconfigures elements of the plot of that incisive portrait of class relations in Edwardian Britain, transporting it across the Atlantic and through the decades. As with the book, much of the drama hinges on a beloved summer home that’s willed to a family friend, and the complications that arise from the bequest. Sometimes the allusions are specific, sometimes merely suggested. For instance, Hickey’s character Henry Wilcox carries the same name as he did in Forster’s novel. However, instead of being a capitalist who made a fortune in the Colonies, he’s being reconceived as a real estate developer — a very Manhattan form of robber baron.
Strangely, though Lopez makes no secret of his debt to “Howards End,” much of the pre-release buzz on “The Inheritance” has drawn comparisons to another towering piece of art, Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.” For his part, Lopez rejects the association, believing the comparison has more to do with the play’s six-hour-plus run time than with its substance.
“Anybody who chases after ‘Angels in America’ is on a fool’s errand,” says Lopez. “I didn’t have very grand ambitions for this play. I thought it was a very simple project. I didn’t realize how much I wanted to say. Gradually, it started to be suggested that maybe I was writing something bigger than just a two-hour, two-act play.”