The real hero of “The Inheritance,” Matthew Lopez’s thoughtful, moving and painfully funny play, is E.M. Forster, the celebrated English author of “Howards End,” “A Room with a View,” “A Passage to India,” and “Maurice,” that last a gay-themed novel published after his death in 1970. It’s quite the literary thrill to find the great writer alive and onstage (and called here by his middle name, Morgan) in Lopez’s free-form borrowings from and musings on “Howards End.” As played with searching intelligence by Paul Hilton, who originated the role at the Young Vic and in its Oliver Award-winning West End transfer, Morgan/Forster emerges as a brilliantly talented writer and an achingly sensitive man.
Stephen Daldry (“An Inspector Calls,” “Billy Elliot”) directs this epic two-parter in a sinuous manner that suits the playwright’s flowing thoughts, and gives his characters the freedom to roam, to learn and, eventually, to grow. Designer Bob Crowley assists with a sleek set — a flat white surface of infinite playing space, with scenes and settings defined by Jon Clark’s sharp lighting design — that makes complex movement look like a walk in the park
Movement is a key factor here, because there are 28 characters in this seven-hour play, and fifteen onstage performers to keep them in action. When the story opens, the players are barefoot, dressed (by Crowley) in casually elegant style, and draped all over the stage. As one or the other steps forward to assume a character, the others hang onto the edges of the stage, acting as an all-knowing, occasionally bitchy chorus.
The social set represented in Forster’s novel was the bourgeois society of Edwardian England, and the specter of death that hung over them was World War I. Over the two plays here, it’s a group of gay New Yorkers living their lives one hundred years later, from the summer of 2015 through the spring of 2018. They escaped their war — the AIDS epidemic — but they live in its long shadow.
The overall look is Hamptons chic. That’s as it should be, because once past some stiffly presentational opening business, the first true scene is set at a party in that Connecticut summer spot. Here, Toby Darling (in a spot-on performance from Andrew Burnap, who originated the pretty-boy role in London) is phoning his boyfriend in the city to brag about his bad behavior at the “gorgeous” modernist home of Henry Wilcox. John Benjamin Hickey plays Henry with passion and dignity, a near-impossible combination to pull off. But with his bleeding heart and haunted soul, Hickey’s Henry is our man.
In addition to playing Morgan, Hilton also portrays Henry’s partner, Walter Poole, which inserts Forster even more securely into the events of the play. Walter is described as having “this ghost-like spirit about him — like a sheer curtain in front of an open window.” It’s a lovely image, if a bit precious; but after all, Toby is a striving author who actually succeeds in his ambition of writing a best-selling novel, “Loved Boy,” that is adapted into a hit Broadway play.
Toby’s boyfriend, Eric Glass (a truly sterling Kyle Soller, who was also in the original company and won an Olivier for his performance), seems a perfect match for him. On their first date, Eric claims he recognized Toby’s potential for greatness, and also his capacity for destruction. The partners even share the same brand of humor. When Toby confesses to the social faux-pas of throwing up in Meryl Streep’s lap, Eric counters with: “Well, it’s not like it was Glenda Jackson or anything.”
Aside from introducing us to Eric and Toby and their social circle — an entertaining, likable crowd — the first of the two plays doesn’t offer much in the way of conflict or action. But that first part deepens, and ends on a note of such ravaging emotion that the audience literally staggers out.
The second play, it must be said, is nowhere near as shattering. But it must be seen, because in addition to expanding our understanding of the characters, of whom we’ve grown very fond, it also develops and resolves the playwright’s central theme. In Forster’s novel, that was the directive to “only connect” in a time of war. Here, it’s a devastating plea for universal gay brotherhood — a heartfelt directive to acknowledge, love, and — of particular importance — to care for one another.
The play’s visual image for that healing love is the hauntingly beautiful model of a house that becomes a home for the 20th-century “war” victims of AIDS. Unexpectedly, and all the more effectively, the play’s thematic plea is articulated by Lois Smith, magnificent in the character of Margaret, a mother who becomes the caretaker of her dying son and of all the dying sons she welcomes into Walter’s home.
“I regret I’ve started to forget them,” she confesses. “But only their names. Never their faces. Those faces have stayed with me all these years, like ghosts. A haunting, if you will. A necessary haunting.”
In the end, “The Inheritance” is bound to be compared with that other two-parter about gay life, “Angels in America.” That’s unsurprising, but beside the point. “Angels” was literally timeless in nature, a lament for all the living and all the dead from time immemorial. Once seen, “Angels” was never forgotten.
“The Inheritance” is not as embracing of all humanity, living and dead: Its characters are too shallow, too narcissistic, too selfish, too grounded in time and space. Nonetheless, “The Inheritance” will not easily be forgotten, either. The play is a remarkable slice of life in a time of war and a beautiful remembrance, “a haunting, a necessary haunting” of both the victims and the survivors of that war.