Review: The Inheritance Is a Radical, If Short-Sighted, Take on Howards End

The Inheritance’s attempt to speak for everyone muddies its ability to speak clearly to anyone.

The Inheritance
Photo: Matthew Murphy

“Helen’s one aim is to translate tunes into the language of painting, and pictures into the language of music,” Margaret Schlegel complains of her sister in E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel Howards End. “If Monet’s really Debussy, and Debussy’s really Monet, neither gentleman is worth his salt—that’s my opinion.” And—to take Margaret’s argument a step farther—if Forster is really Lopez, and Lopez is really Forster, are either of those gentlemen worth their salt? The Lopez in question is Matthew Lopez, an American playwright whose nearly seven-hour adaptation of Howards End, The Inheritance, took London by storm last season, capturing the Olivier Award for best play.

Lopez told Vulture last month that he considers his radical adaptation to be “the ultimate in fan-fiction, basically.” And, considered purely as a work of fan fiction, The Inheritance is a daring feat: Honoring Forster’s queerness (expressed explicitly only in Maurice, a novel published posthumously), Lopez has transformed pretty much every single one of Howards End’s characters into gay men living in New York City before and after the 2016 election.

And, after spending many hours sitting in what feels very much like a theater, we find out at the end of The Inheritance—I saw the play’s two parts back to back in a single day—that we’ve apparently been inside a novel the whole time. A novelist character presents his finished debut draft, and, wouldn’t you know, it’s called The Inheritance. “And this is the book I wrote” may be a familiar conclusion to the coming-of-age story of a would-be writer. However, the mixed-media revelation of the play-within-a-novel structure helps to draw back the curtain on why The Inheritance struggles with its theatricality throughout its overripe running time.

The large all-male ensemble often jovially takes on the roles of narrators, delivering exposition (often with text lifted directly from Howards End) as if they were opening chapters of their own novels. Even after E.M. Forster (Paul Hilton), who self-referentially helps a gathering of young gay men to tell their story in the first half of the play, departs, encouraging the men to tell their own stories, they keep clinging to Forster’s language and style. And while director Stephen Daldry’s staging is simple but consistently attention-holding, with some scattered poetic images, it’s also usually doubling the words of that whirling narration: Daldry wants to show us, but Lopez has already told us, usually more than once.

Howards End is a substantial book, but it’s not an epic, and nothing about this story demands seven hours of storytelling. The size and subject matter of The Inheritance set it up inevitably in conversation, and almost in contest with, Angels in America, even though the two plays have very little else in common. And while I preferred the plottier, less manipulative second part of The Inheritance to its stringier first, I often had the sense that I was seeing the same play twice in one day: Each part has its own over-involved dinner-table political debate where it doesn’t seem to matter which character makes which point; its own 15-minute monologue about the AIDS era, though both are delivered potently and written compellingly; and even its own winking aside about audiences sitting through very, very long plays. Reading Howards End, there’s seldom the same sensation of Forster padding out his pages.

The Inheritance
The boys of The Inheritance prepare for the 2016 election. © Matthew Murphy

Lopez’s revisionism of Howards End itself is convincingly provocative: If Forster had felt free to write people like him (or, to be more accurate to that time in the author’s life, if he’d felt free to live as someone like himself), what might their stories have been? But part of the novel’s magic is the omniscient narrator’s rigorous empathy: The women in Howards End pulsate with realness more brilliantly than do any of the men, and the novel’s protagonist, Margaret Schlegel, finds her voice and strength wholly unaided by the gentlemen who seek to guide and control her. Reading the book feels less like Forster has gifted his heroine these commanding qualities and more like he’s gotten out of her way so she can display them.

The Inheritance, however, in making up for lost time on behalf of the gay men whose stories Forster failed to tell, doesn’t open the gate any wider. It’s a totally unnecessary shame—and a shock, to be honest—that all five of the principal characters are white. The ensemble of friends who pitch in to tell the story and take on cameo roles is more diverse, but they spend most of the play sitting around the edge of the platform upon which most of the action plays out, handing props to the principals and offering one-line exclamations in response to the scene above them. At one point, the entire stage at the left edge of that platform is populated by actors of color, their perspectives literally sidelined.

In a play that prides itself on letting its characters speak for themselves, it registers as an egregious oversight that the characters of color are required to speak in statistics and taglines for their entire communities. (Even Angels in America, nearly 30 years ago, seems to do better in this regard.) HIV/AIDS matters a lot here in the past tense when its victims are white but not so much in the present when, as one character points out in what feels like a footnote, African-American men who’re gay or bisexual have a one in two chance of contracting the virus. Several characters promise each other to do better and focus on fighting for trans people and people of color, but the play makes no such promises itself.

The absence of women from the stage here, at least, registers as far more deliberate, if not entirely convincing. When the lone female actor, 89-year-old Lois Smith, who made her Broadway debut in 1952, appears in the final half hour of part two to offer her moving (if, by that point, superfluous) monologue, there’s a poignant surprise in seeing the real world reflected again on stage. As a result of these exclusions, The Inheritance’s central exploration is the legacies left between generations of white, cisgender gay men, and the labyrinths through which these men can hurt each other and help each other and love each other.

The Inheritance also focuses entirely on men who feel free to express their queerness openly and unapologetically. Their sexuality isn’t confronted by the outside world, both because the outside world doesn’t seem to exist (except as represented by the unnamed specter of Trump) and because these men are fortunate enough to have constructed lives where the outside world can’t get in. (Dashed-off references to contemporary tragedies—like “Tell that to the kids at Pulse” —resonate more bitterly than silence.) For most of the characters, with one compelling exception, the most serious challenges they face are ones of their own making.

The Inheritance keeps insisting over and over again that the Margaret stand-in, Eric Glass (Kyle Soller), a well-to-do social justice activist, is “remarkable.” Forster himself says so. So does Henry Wilcox (John Benjamin Hickey), the middle-aged billionaire (and—shock!—gay Trump donor), whose transposition from the novel works most smoothly, as he falls for Eric. But Soller’s amiable performance fades into the background here; Eric’s remarkable only so far as the other characters insist he is. Why this activist seems to have less agency or power over his own life than the turn-of-the-century woman he’s based on is never explained.

The Inheritance
Lois Smith and Samuel H. Levine in The Inheritance. © Matthew Murphy

Eric’s also dwarfed by the more extreme men around him. There’s Eric’s monstrously self-absorbed boyfriend, Toby Darling (Andrew Burnap), on his own ill-fated journey of adapting his novel into a play. Toby, a sort of gay Gatsby, is everything Forster couldn’t be, an author who tells stories proudly grounded in his sexual identity (at one point he even calls out the spirit of Forster for his cowardice in staying closeted and keeping his early 20th-century queerness off the shelves). But, Toby discovers, his writing is also superficial and false, and he struggles to drink and drug himself toward honesty. Burnap’s boisterous careening and biting cycles of spiraling are among the play’s more engaging trips, but Toby doesn’t stand still long enough for the end of his storyline to come across quite as tragically as Lopez intends.

Shining brighter than either Eric or Toby, though, is the diptych of Adam and Leo, the filthy rich college student and the homeless sex worker, each played rivetingly by Samuel H. Levine. The introduction of Leo, the one character whose story haunts and never feels excessive, also introduces a real difference in life experience—and, therefore, real dramatic tension—that heats up the play’s second half. In one fleeting scene, Levine’s two characters meet, and the actor grippingly pulls off a conversation between them: Levine’s posture, voice, and affect transform so completely that his one-man dialogue is completely seamless.

That moment also sheds The Inheritance’s novel-like stretchiness, as it’s the rare patch that demands a stage to support it. The other truly theatrical moment arrives at the end of part one, the culmination of the play’s study of how the loss of a generation of gay men deprived gay millennials of mentors and father figures. As Eric steps for the first time into a house that represents that gaping hole in history, something mesmerizing and heartbreaking occurs. Since it’s the main reason to see the play, I won’t spoil it here and just say that its emotional impact would have hit just as hard after 90 tightly wound minutes, rather than three-plus hours. Nor does that impact expand as the play continues for three-plus hours more.

The Inheritance left me with a greater appreciation for a smaller, shorter play that ran earlier this fall, Rattlestick Playwright Theater’s Novenas for a Lost Hospital, which began with an opportunity for audience members to write their memories of the AIDS era on blue butterflies hanging above the stage and ended with a pilgrimage to the New York City AIDS Memorial, where audiences and actors could share stories together. The acknowledgement that one author couldn’t tell every story alone made Novenas a moving, human experience.

Conversely, The Inheritance’s attempt to speak for everyone muddies its ability to speak clearly to anyone. As Margaret tells her sister at the end of Howards End, “Because a thing is going strong now, it need not go strong forever.” Unlike his most voluminous fan-fiction writer, Forster knew when it was time to scrawl “The End” and move on to the next project.

The Inheritance is now playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

Dan Rubins

Dan Rubins is a writer, composer, and arts nonprofit leader based in New York City. He has previously written about theater for CurtainUp, Theatre Is Easy, A Younger Theatre, and the journal Shakespeare.

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