A hit on Broadway before Covid struck, gifted playwright Matthew Lopez’s Tony-Award-winning epic retelling of E.M. Forster’s “Howard’s End” is brought to powerful, magnificent life at the Geffen Playhouse.
“The Inheritance” takes place in and around New York City and spans decades in the lives of a group of gay friends. It takes on the history of gay culture, the AIDS crisis, drug addiction, belonging, and what it means to survive and thrive in a world that sometimes doesn’t want them.
Eric Glass (Adam Kantor) is the level-headed heart of the group. A political activist, he is still a bit unsure about what he truly wants to do with his life. He lives with his frantic and a bit arrogant writer-boyfriend Toby Darling (Juan Castano) in a rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan that has been in his family for generations.
When Toby’s first best-selling book is commissioned to be turned into a play, the couple’s lives slowly start to change when two very different people enter their lives.
The first is young actor Adam (Bradley James Tejeda), who accidentally switches bags with Toby at a bookstore. He stumbles on their apartment during a gathering of friends inflaming the curiosity of everyone there. Quickly, Adam becomes close friends with Eric and Toby and ends up being cast as the lead in Toby’s play.
Meanwhile, Walter Poole (Bill Brochtrup) is an older man married to his long-time love Henry Wilcox (Tuc Watkins). While Henry is a businessman and frequently away, Walter finds himself back in New York City in the same building Eric and Toby live in. With Toby away and having been acquaintances with the couple for years, Eric and Walter reconnect and build a close friendship. It is this bond that drives the story forward, altering Eric and Toby’s life in the process.
There is a lot more to the stories of “The Inheritance,” but it is best to discover them as the play progresses. These narratives involve not only their close circle of friends but also a prostitute named Leo (also played by Tejeda), who ends up figuring prominently in their lives.
This play is a marathon story encompassing decades of living, history both tragic and beautiful, and lives loved and lost. It speaks to several issues particular to the gay community, including the need for community, the history of the AIDS crisis, the longing for connection, and the demand for purpose. While it might seem like Lopez’s play bites off too many themes, he brilliantly weaves them into a stunning, rich narrative that steels its way into your bones.
At its heart, the title of “The Inheritance” is about an actual house that is inherited but taken away from someone deserving. But it’s also about the history and community the LGBTQ+ community inherits. The play speaks to the need not to lose that history, that thing that makes gay people “gay.” While the LGBTQ+ community strives for acceptance and freedom within that acceptance, they also ache to remember what makes them different. It’s not just their sexuality that separates them from the straight world that dominates, but their coming out, their struggles to find a “family,” and the journey to find a home. These are not paths that straight people have to take, making the gay community so different and unique in many ways. “The Inheritance” is a celebration of that, as much as it is an urgent reminder not to lose it.
Lopez brilliantly crafts conversations that have no easy answers. For example, at once, he is teaching the younger generation about the tragedy of the early years of the AIDS epidemic and how that informed an entire generation of men. He urges them not to forget about that struggle and that journey. Because without it, things would be very different for the gay community today.
In one scene, Lopez offers the perspective of a gay billionaire Republican who calmly offers why he supports candidates most gay people would oppose. (The Trump presidency figures prominently in parts of the story, but he is gratefully never identified by name.)
Lopez doesn’t damn his characters. He doesn’t judge his characters. Even those who make terrible decisions and do awful things have a relatable depth and poignancy. No one is totally a villain, and no one is entirely a saint. These are people living life as best they can with how they grew up and got on in the world. Everyone here has their story. Everyone here has their hardships and traumas. But by not letting the trauma define them is how we see them rise.
The show takes place mainly on a slightly raised stage where the actors taking center stage perform while the others sit around it like a table. Director Mike Donahue beautifully utilizes his cast to offer props to each other, comment on what is happening, and bring extra perspective to the narrative. Only occasionally does the back of the stage open up to reveal anything other than the actors. The “actors are the thing.” They are the focus. And Lopez’s words are sometimes all the set you really need, which is masterful.
What can I say about the cast except that they are all tremendous? Every single one of them. It’s hard to pick favorites because so many get their chance to shine, even in simple moments. It’s safe to say that the three leads have the most impact. Castano, as lost soul Toby, has the showiest of the roles because his character goes through so much. From the confident party boy with the wonderful boyfriend to the insecure writer who starts to lose everything at his own hand, he is shattering in the role.
Kantor, as Eric, truly feels like not only the heart of his friends but the show’s heartbeat. Kind, empathic, and slightly naïve, he is the glue that holds everyone together when the one person that needs to be held together is himself. It’s sneaky how Lopez writes this character as sort of this understated, confident guy who has one of the more powerful transformations throughout the seven-hour running time. Kantor pulls you into his character, never making him feel earnest or needy. He is the guy you fall in love with and the character you root to get everything he wants.
Tejeda (a new addition to the cast after a previous actor was injured) is a revelation here. Playing both childlike actor Adam and then soft-spoken, broken prostitute Leo, he displays a range that is fascinating to watch and incredibly moving. Both characters couldn’t be more different from each other, and how he interprets them is breathtaking.
If I could go through the rest of the actors, I would, but in the interest of time, I will say that Tuc Watkins (“Uncoupled”) is superb as the buttoned-up, guarded Henry. And in one of the most potent scenes of “Part 2,” Tantoo Cardinal delivers a riveting ten-minute monologue about her treatment of and relationship with her gay son.
When I got home from the theater, I thought about the stories I had witnessed. I remembered the beauty of the writing and the impact of the acting, and I was moved to the point where I spontaneously began sobbing in my room.
As a writer, I was monumentally inspired. And as a gay man, I felt lovingly seen.
Matthew Lopez has crafted a world that captures the essence of what it means to be gay and has created characters and lives that feel lived in, potent, and honest. It is a story I will never forget and is genuinely the best theatrical experience I have ever had.
The play is told in two parts, each requiring separate admission and each running a little over three hours with two intermissions each. Some days both parts are performed on the same day, which is how I saw it and how I feel it is the best way to be seen.