‘The Inheritance’ one of the most powerful gay dramas ever on Broadway

Andrew Burnap, John Benjamin Hickey, Paul Hilton, Samuel H. Levine and Kyle Soller star in the two-part drama “The Inheritance” at the Ethel Barrymore Theater. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

While discussing the 1980s AIDS epidemic, Eric, a sensitive, young gay man, confesses that he “can’t imagine what those years were like” and “cannot possibly feel what it was.”

The physically frail Walter, a first-hand witness of the period, asks Eric to name his closest friends. One by one, Walter declares that each one of Eric’s friends is dead or has been infected or diagnosed with AIDS. “That is what it was,” says Walter.

Such is the remarkably chilling end of the first act of “The Inheritance,” a two-part drama (running approximately seven hours in total) by Matthew Lopez that brings together gay men in contemporary New York City, gay men of earlier decades, and the 20th century English writer E.M. Foster, whose 1910 novel “Howards End” serves as an unlikely source of inspiration for the play’s elaborate structure and emphasis on social outreach and building community. 

To put it bluntly, “The Inheritance” (which premiered at London’s Old Vic, transferred to the West End, and is now making its American debut) is the triumph of the fall theater season. Nothing else that I have seen over the past few months – play or musical, Broadway or Off-Broadway – comes close to matching its sense of humor, playfulness, history and earnest contemplation. 

In spite of the length, it is absorbing and surprisingly easy to follow. 

The production (directed by Stephen Daldry, “Billy Elliot”) is marked by nonstop theatrical ingenuity and collaboration, with a large ensemble actively taking turns bringing the complicated saga to life. The vibrant cast is led by Andrew Burnap, John Benjamin Hickey, Paul Hilton, Samuel H. Levine, and Kyle Soller. The only female in the cast is 89-year-old Lois Smith, who makes a last-minute but vital contribution to the proceedings. 

I attended both parts of the play on a single day. Following the unbelievable and unforgettable end of the first part (in which Eric visits a long-deserted country house and is greeted, one by one, by the ghosts of AIDS victims), I was barely able to leave my seat and could not imagine waiting another two hours for the second half to begin. I suspect that the other audience members, many of whom were sobbing, felt similarly.

Lopez, who is making his Broadway debut, is not exactly an unknown writer. Most recently, he penned the flimsy, feel-good comedy “The Legend of Georgia McBride.” With “The Inheritance,” he has earned a place at the dinner table of the most promising contemporary American playwrights.

It is tempting to compare “The Inheritance” with Tony Kushner’s masterwork “Angels in America,” which is also a two-part, six-act, roughly seven-hour drama centered on AIDS, historical connections, and politics. However, “The Inheritance” very much stands on its own as a separate work with a very different sensibility, and I strongly suspect that it will soon join “Angels in America” in the pantheon of great gay dramas.

4 stars

“The Inheritance” plays an open run at the Barrymore Theatre. 243 W. 47th St., theinheritanceplay.com.