Is something you’ve heard and will be hearing a lot this week.
Before we start- I’m not a formal journalist or a critic. I certainly am a writer, a theatre artist, a theatergoer. So when you hear a lot of my perspective in this piece, it’s not the same as when certain prominent theatre critics have done it because I’m not claiming to have a monopoly on taste or the truth. Pieces like this may very well be better off being viewed as such in the future—one person’s take.
So, uh. I’m here to talk about the Broadway shutdown, I guess. I’ve seen some theatre in quarantine. I saw Hi, Are You Single? by Ryan Haddad (incredibly heartfelt and also funny). I saw Circle Jerk Live. I saw numerous fundraising concerts and readings. I even did a few concerts and readings.
But just before Broadway went dark, I saw the last performance(s) of Matthew Lopez’s play, The Inheritance. There will be spoilers in this piece. The Inheritance was going to close that weekend, and luckily they preserved it on tape on the last day Broadway was open. I’ve been to closing nights before. This performance felt like that, only magnified by the uncertainty of when live theatre would ever return. We didn’t know for sure, but we knew.
The next day I watched my industry crumble in real-time in a series of texts. The night prior, I had a shift collecting money for Broadway Cares in the New Amsterdam Theater after a typical Tuesday night performance of Aladdin.
But for one day, even though the pandemic was looming, I got to escape into a day-long, deeply emotional theatregoing experience.
I need you to know that I don’t think it’s perfect. I know how to have nuance. I also want you to know that I look at this play through a particular lens. I know that I can never write a review of this play for those reasons and many more. But I can talk about it!
Just before I get into The Inheritance itself, a word. It’s not the same as Angels; if you compare it to Angels in America, you are doing both plays a disservice. Even though they’re both Gay Plays that are long and in New York City and talk about HIV/AIDS. Just don’t.
I saw The Inheritance twice through (the first time I saw it was with Broadway Cares, which also felt like a unique performance), and I have read it- I won’t tell you how many times I’ve read it, particularly how many times I’ve read Part II. A lot of people didn’t like Part II as much, but I liked it more.
This is a play that deals with HIV/AIDS. Towards the end of its run, people were drawing parallels between HIV/AIDS and COVID-19, saying this play is super relevant right now (as if it weren’t before), and here’s my take on that: HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 will never be a 1:1 comparison. The viruses aren’t the same kind of virus, the commonly affected populations are different, and the US initial response to both sucked, but was and is still different. But those who say The Inheritance wasn’t up to date were thrown off by this pandemic, as it’s yet another collective trauma and another era that has driven a wedge between our community.
Regardless, it was and will continue to be relevant as long as men struggle to deal with their emotions in the face of adversity, as long as addiction exists, as long as gay men exist, as long as fear and shame exist, so, always. Some people also felt this play was dated because it’s male-dominated on and off-stage and also fairly white. Here’s the thing. They still exist now. And I’d rather hear a person of color’s take on them now than another play exclusively by and about cis white gay men. There should continue to be more diverse stories, and I see the value in this one, too.
The text itself is an epic that would likely have to be a miniseries if there is ever a screen adaptation. It has time to build the world and the characters with such specificity. The Inheritance is an inherently specific play. In the entirety of this six-act play, there is only one woman. The story represents a subsection within a subsection of the LGBT community, most of whom live in a bubble. But I know these men. I do. I feel like I do not even live on the same planet as these men or these characters. For example, these characters expected Clinton to win in 2016, while I, a person who lies firmly to the left, lost faith in this country years prior. Trans people are mentioned in name but never seen. People of color (aside from the playwright himself) are in supporting roles, and more than one aspect of the plot is specific to intergenerational wealth, aka inheritance.
I suppose I also ought to acknowledge the generational gaps in this play. The different generations are divided in this play and on this play. Henry and Walter are so different from each other, but their shared experience of being older gay men is in stark contrast to Leo and the main cast. Morgan (an alias for E.M. Forster) is older than all of them and is completely disconnected from the other characters, but he’s there as a jumping-off point, as is his story, Howard’s End is the basis for part of the plot. But most of the plot is wholly gay and more liberated than E.M. Forster ever would’ve been able to be. This play demonstrates how intergenerational trauma is a form of intergenerational wealth because it is a baggage of sorts.
It’s a gay play. It’s even a Gay Play. This is a story for a very niche type of person, but it is also for the onlookers who share society with them and go, “Hey, asshole, could you not?” The word homonormativity gets thrown around a lot these days. It’s not all bad that it’s homonormative; it’s just a specific viewpoint and voice. It is the execution and the level of difficulty handling it that make or break a piece. Theatre doesn’t have to be comfortable. However, if it is wholly destabilizing, it might not work for that individual. I know some recent theatre did that to me. I see The Inheritance did that to some people. But for me, The Inheritance let me in, broke my heart, and gave me perspective. I went in cynical because of friends, but I left both times feeling like I learned something. The characters’ depth (sometimes even how elaborate their shallowness is) and relationship dynamics are a credit to the writer and the actors.
Andrew Burnap is a Tony nominee (if the Tonys ever happen) for his performance as Toby Darling, one of the central characters. His performance was astonishing. The first time I saw his performance, I was FUMING at the character. I thought he was an irredeemable monster. (I realized, by the way, that he’s the one the playwright relates to most, apparently.) He’s not a monster; he has maladaptive coping mechanisms, and if he worked on himself, he could get his life relatively back together. I realized, too, that I hated him because I hated how he reminded me of myself. No one wants to admit they’re flawed.
But that’s what I love so much about this play. It holds a mirror up to gay/bi/queer men (primarily those who are cis and white) and says, LOOK. Shame and fear ruin lives. You are not always the victims you think you are. You are hurt people, and you will hurt people. You have inherited trauma, and you will inflict trauma on other people. The cycle will not break until we do the work to break it. That may not be everyone’s takeaway, but it certainly was mine.
From the righteously indignant neoliberal, Jasper, to the emotionally stunted venture capitalist, Henry, to trust fund twink turned actor, Adam, all the way to the altruistic and aggressively naive Eric Glass, not one of these characters is all good or all bad. The characters also each have their own relative concept of morality and judge one another, just like I’m judging them, and you, the reader, are probably judging me. That makes it feel more real than having the play have one universal concept of morality.
Eric Glass is another of the central characters. I saw Sam Lilja the first time I saw the play, and Olivier winner Kyle Soller the second time. Eric Glass is predominantly good, but in my eyes, he has some questionable values. I also suppose I don’t like how his backstory and Judaism are so haphazardly written (See? I can criticize. But also, not that Matthew Lopez will ever read this, but this is for him if he does. I appreciate you and your work, sir, but please don’t cremate a Jewish character, especially a Holocaust survivor, without some form of explanation for it. Or don’t do it at all. I get that it was for the joke that she’s in the apartment still, but you could have had the line be about her photograph and offend one less religion.)
Eric’s opposition is himself and everyone around him. Eric is enamored with the past, and both Henry and Toby want nothing to do with it. Eric doesn’t pick his partners wisely. Henry’s children try to keep him from getting Walter’s house, but fate works out, and he gets it anyway. Walter is his kindred spirit, a soulmate of sorts, but he passes away early into the play. They stay connected through the house and the work Eric does to help Leo there. All of these characters are so intertwined that many of the characters are doubled on an individual actor. The play does a great job of showing the audience how so many people’s lives can be interconnected.
Then there’s the narrator, Leo, who is not the perfect portrayal of sex workers or people experiencing homelessness or HIV. It is no secret that I am in Leo’s corner: he is as close as this play gets to a good guy (and that may be because it’s his story). Leo is easy to side with because he only wants what he needs: love, compassion, and survival. Most of the other men in this play don’t know what they want or even what they need.
The actor portraying Adam and Leo, Samuel H. Levine, had the difficult task of talking to himself as two different people, meeting himself as two sides of the same coin. Not only is this play about specific viewpoints, but it’s also about diametric opposition in some of those viewpoints. The dichotomy that this play presents of “heal or burn” is a dilemma many people who are in struggle face. Leo and Toby are both faced with the question, “How do I use my pain?” when writing. Adam and Leo are obvious parallel characters because they look alike, the same actor plays them, and one gets lucky while the other suffers.
Samuel H. Levine, Andrew Burnap. Image: @inheritanceplay on Instagram.
Leo and Toby are quite similar, too. They’re both writers from low-income backgrounds trying to survive in the city and escape their past. Toby seems successful enough, living with Eric and hiding his history. He is successful until this question of “heal or burn” catches up with him, and he sees no other option besides burn while Leo continues to heal. Toby’s solution to escaping his life is to die, while Leo asks for help, change, and persevere.
The truth of this “heal or burn” issue is that it’s not so binary outside (or even inside) the play. But I wouldn’t expect anything but binary on a Broadway stage full of cis men. The question sets off a meaningful discussion about coping with pain that the rest of us can continue having. I could go on about this play for the rest of my life, with praise and criticism, but I’ll leave it here today. I hope when live theatre comes back, more of us will get the opportunity to share our voices, and we have a forum to move forward from this newer traumatic era. Still, I immensely enjoyed this look into another perspective. If you made it through the whole thing, thank you. Either way, if you’re at the bottom now, here are a couple more perspectives from reputable sources that somewhat differ or differ entirely from mine since sharing a diversity of opinion is essential.
Failure to connect
When I started this newsletter, I said that I would only be recommending shows that I loved instead of writing negative…