The love that dare not speak its name is, of late, raising its voice quite loudly in an avalanche of gay-themed plays and films such as Angels in America, The York Realist, Everyone’s Talking About Jamie, God's Own Country, Love, Simon, Call Me By Your Name, The Wound and currently The Inheritance, a two-part, seven-hour marathon at the Young Vic, which can be seen over the course of a day or on two consecutive evenings.
It is no secret that this ambitious, absorbing, heart-wrenching, occasionally didactic, often very funny, marginally flawed emotional roller-coaster ride by Matthew Lopez – set between the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and gay life in contemporary New York – owes a debt to both Tony Kushner, who wrote Angels in America, and E.M. Forster, on whose novel Howard’s End Lopez has wrung some ingenious postmodern changes. Forster, in the guise of a character called Morgan, wafts in and out of the play as a novelist giving a group of gay Manhattan men a kind of tutorial on storytelling as they attempt to bring some shape, order, understanding and connective tissue to their existences.
Using a device in which the key characters often describe rather than act out certain scenes in their (mostly privileged) lives, a compelling narrative slowly unfurls involving a thoroughly decent young lawyer called Eric Glass (Kyle Stoller) and the edgy but passionate long-term relationship he is having with Toby Darling (Andrew Burnap), a superficial, outrageously vain and flamboyant writer seriously in denial about his unhappy childhood. They share a luxury Upper West Side apartment that Eric’s family has owned for years, but whose lease is about to end – a situation that jeopardises their imminent marriage. There’s a further problem in the shape of an attractive would-be actor called Adam (Samuel H. Levine), with whom Toby becomes smitten after casting him as the leading man in a play he has written and that has been optioned for Broadway.
His marriage plans in tatters, Eric finds himself drawn to a Republican billionaire materialist called Henry Wilcox (John Benjamin Hickey), whose own long-term partner, Walter (Paul Hilton, who doubles as Morgan) has just died. The Howard’s End narrative is further evoked when we learn that Walter, who, coincidentally, once befriended Eric, has left him a sprawling farmhouse in upstate New York that Henry, years earlier, had given him, and that Walter, against Henry’s wishes, had turned into a retreat for terminally ill gay men at the height of the AIDS crisis. Henry, who has two grown-up sons, is persuaded by them to ignore Walter’s wishes.
There is one other major character in the play, and the only one who has not enjoyed a privileged, moneyed existence. He’s Leo (also played by Samuel H. Levine), a young rent-boy broken both in body and spirit and an Adam lookalike. Leo is, in a sense, the play’s moral conscience, and after a one-night stand, Toby becomes awkwardly involved with him.
In its epic coverage of three generations of gay relationships, Lopez addresses (directly to the audience and sometimes too didactically) several issues such as moral responsibility, the nature (and nurture) of privilege, “the iniquity of economic equality,” the “divide between the responsibility to community and the responsibility to the self,” E.M. Forster’s cowardice in suppressing his homosexual novel Maurice during his lifetime, and the degree one needs to suffer in order to gain understanding.
Pride of place on Lopez’s questioning agenda, though, is the “then” and “now” aspect of gay life. Now that gay men and women are no longer forced into a secretive underworld existence but can live an openly parallel one, what are the losses and what are the gains with regards to their political and cultural identities?
Though heavy with ideological issues (as in liberalism versus Republicanism), the play abounds in some terrific set pieces such as Adam’s sexually graphic description of his visit to a gay bathhouse in Prague; the appearance of an accomplished painter who burns all his canvasses because, as good as they may outwardly appear, he has never truly felt a believable creative surge while painting them; a catastrophic gate-crashing of a wedding; Eric’s emotionally charged initial visit to Walter’s Upstate country sanctuary, where he encounters the ghosts of the many young men who perished there during the AIDS epidemic; and in the final 20 minutes, the appearance of Vanessa Redgrave, the only woman in the cast who as Margaret, the mother of a son who died at the sanctuary, breaks your heart with her gentleness, her sensitivity and her fragility. There’s added resonance here in that Redgrave was one of the stars of the celebrated 1992 Merchant-Ivory film of Howard’s End.
It’s true that some judicious snips, especially in the second half, would have benefited the text without in any way reducing the epic nature of the event. For Lopez, size clearly matters. Fortunately, he is meticulously abetted by his director, Stephen Daldry, who, working on Bob Crowley’s minimalist set – a versatile platform that is raised and lowered according to requirements – choreographs the action with balletic fluidity. The subtle lighting design is by Jon Clark.
The commitment of the 13 members of the cast is palpable, with Hilton, Burnap, Soller and Redgrave all outstanding. But while Levine manages to make rent-boy Leo deeply affecting, I found it hard to accept that the character of lookalike Adam, who has never been in a play before, becomes an overnight Broadway sensation in Toby’s play. The necessary charisma just isn’t there to make such a leap of faith believable. That quibble aside, it’s surely only a matter of a short time before The Inheritance finds favour in New York.