The Inheritance by Matthew Lopez
Noël Coward Theatre / directed by Stephen Daldry
Seen on November 17, 2018
A theatrical triumph that is incandescently overwhelming, heart-wrenching, and life-affirming: Matthew Lopez’s seven-hour marathon through the intersecting stories of a dozen gay men trying to make sense of who they are, and where they are going, in contemporary New York is an absolute tour de force in its dramatic ambition, formal inventiveness, and tender humanity. Despite, or rather because of, its demanding length and overwrought plotting, the play fiercely captures one’s attention and doesn’t let go of it even after it’s over. “A haunting, if you will. A necessary haunting.” These words, spoken by Margaret with reference to the farmhouse at the centre of the play, are perhaps the best encapsulation of what this production does to its audiences. Stephen Daldry’s utterly ingenious direction, with its unceasing attention to both the totality of this colossal work and its infinite minutiae, is indispensable to this visceral effect. His phenomenal cast, with not even a slightly weak link, is a pleasure to watch from start to finish. Though every single actor is dazzling and awe-inspiring in his own way, those that shine blindingly bright are Andrew Burlap, Paul Hilton, Samuel Levine, and Kyle Soller. Vanessa Redgrave, with her late, brief appearance in one of the most touching scenes of the play, injects her grace and virtuosity to the world of these tormented men. Bob Crowley’s spare but breathtaking design, Jon Clark’s sublime lighting, and Paul Englishby’s moving music are the other pillars upon which this work breathes, ever throbbing with life.
The Inheritance meditates on, and calmly celebrates, the healing glories of intergenerational kinship, of historical consciousness, of brotherly love, and (perhaps most fully) of storytelling and writing. Central to all this is the idea of reaching out—across time, across space, and across kinds and degrees of personal difference. Naturally enough, that comes with questions of how, why, how much, and when—questions that never stop thrusting themselves upon the characters and the audience, and that don’t like easy answers. With the exception of a handful of scenes that self-consciously launch into a Shavian register of debate and lecture, this multi-layered pondering is primarily done at the level of plot, which is one of the greatest achievements of Lopez. It is no easy feat to craft a narrative of this scope that is at once intriguing, funny, and thought-provoking. Even at the expense of overwriting the plot (along with the character of Toby) towards the end, and gradually diffusing in Part Two the remarkable narrative tightness of Part One, Lopez holds nothing back in the way he immerses us into the lives of his characters, creating a narrative vortex in which the great degree of their unexpected entanglements itself becomes the point.
Yes, there are some minor weaknesses—a few redundant moments and digressions, and somewhat jarring transitions/jumps in the story—but none of that really matters when one takes stock of the work as a whole, with its intricately woven and relentlessly accretive architecture reigning supreme over some flickering lights in some random corner.
“Epic” and “novelistic” are two words that one cannot do without in thinking about this work: the former in its literal, Homeric sense, and the latter in the way in which it governs both the structure and the thematics of the play. This generic “reaching out” is not at all the sign of an uneasiness with the dramatic form, but rather an homage to its inherent openness to multiple modalities of narration—something about which the characters, too, are obsessed. The play concludes with Leo having written a novel titled “The Inheritance,” whose first sentence is no other than that of the story told by the Young Men in this very play. No wonder, also, that one of the key plot points is Toby’s adaptation of his faux-autobiographical novel for the stage. And, of course, the spectral centrality of E. M. Forster and his novels to the entire play is beyond discussion. Reflexivity clearly plays a part in all this, but there also emerges, quite beautifully, a sort of circularity, evocative of the historical cycles that the characters first come to enact and then break through.
The Inheritance is, more than anything, an ode to the revelatory and recuperative power of stories, of the act of telling of one’s own story, especially as one finds himself in situations of—or in a life of—intense precarity, loneliness, and yearning. In the play’s blazing world, the various inheritances—both literal and figurative—that come to upend and define the characters’ lives are what paves the way for their increasing awareness of this power (like that of the pigs’ teeth that reside deep in the trunk of that cherry tree). Much of this discourse is predicated upon the question of what it means to be a gay man in America today, but what ultimately makes Lopez’s play a masterpiece, and an instant modern classic, is the uplifting universality that it gracefully weaves into a plot of myriad specificities. The result is all-consuming, unforgettable, and unmissable.