What Makes Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance the Newest Tentpole of the Theatrical Canon

Opening Night   What Makes Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance the Newest Tentpole of the Theatrical Canon
 
Even before its official Broadway opening November 18, theatregoers have been calling it a seminal work. But why?
in <i>The Inheritance</i>
Kyle Soller, Paul Hilton, and John Benjamin Hickey in The Inheritance Matthew Murphy

In Malcom Gladwell’s 2006 book The Tipping Point, the author identifies three types of influencers when it comes to social epidemics. Matthew Lopez’s two-part magnum opus The Inheritance—widely buzzed about since its Olivier-wining production in London—is a connector. It’s a continuation of the playwrights who came before, “Tony Kushner, Terrence McNally, Craig Lucas, Jon Robin Baitz,” as star John Benjamin Hickey says. It’s a descendant of E.M. Forster’s Howards End, as playwright Matthew Lopez credits. It’s a link between current generations of gay men. It’s a bridge between making art and the art itself."

“It was always important to me to be a play about writers and creation—that we also examine how this piece of art is also created,” Lopez told Playbill on the opening night red carpet of his Broadway debut work November 17.

The show opens, on the stage of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, with young men sprawled on the floor—a dorm common room, perhaps—focused and tapping at their computers or meandering and tapping their erasers in thought. With the help of their professor, Morgan (a stand-in for Forster himself), one of the young men begins to tell the story, a couple of his cohorts playing the characters as he dictates the action. “I actually really love [that] because I feel it keeps us all engaged because we have a reason that we’re there; we’re all creating the story together,” says Jonathan Burke, who plays Young Man 5/Charles Wilcox/Toby’s agent. “I think it instructs the audience what the journey of the play is. It creates community.”

The plot begins with Toby, who lives with his boyfriend of seven years, Eric Glass, in Eric’s family’s Upper West Side rent-controlled apartment. Their inner circle consists of other gay men in their 30s, a generation who came of age with marriage equality, the built-in possibility of parenthood, and progress. Eric and Toby take under their wing a 20-something gay actor, introducing him to their world; likewise, Walter, a 50-year-old gay man partnered for 36 years—a survivor of the AIDS crisis—takes Eric under his wing.

Over the course of six acts, the question of what makes a community rings central to Lopez’s work. What do we owe each other? What should we inherit from our ancestors? What do we pass on?

“Eric stands in a very interesting position at the fulcrum between the two generations, between the Henry Wilcoxes and between the Leos of the world,” says Kyle Soller, who plays Eric Glass. “He’s in a bit of a crisis because he doesn’t know what he owes to the community or even himself.”

Where Larry Kramer and Tony Kushner chronicled the fear and panic, power and politics among out and closeted gay men during the AIDS crisis of Reagan’s 1980s America, The Inheritance examines these questions specific to the intersectional gay male experience of today, beginning in Obama’s 2015 and ending in Trump’s 2017. And the full cast brings their personal experiences to the stage. “This is a play about being a gay man in the 2000s and the 2010s, and I moved to the city in 2001,” says Jordan Barbour, who plays Young Man 6/Tristan. “We’re all able to share our own life experiences and bring that into the room in a really truthful and honest way. We’re not really reaching.”

That camaraderie deepens the play at every moment. “I truly am in love desperately with every single member of this cast, and I don’t think we could do this play if we weren’t,” says Andrew Burnap, who plays Toby.

For many in the cast, the play is cathartic and healing, even in its painful moments. “To acknowledge the past, to open the box, accept the pain, to try and heal the wounds but do that in order to forge a better future, it’s like Kintsugi, a Japanese form of pottery repair,” says Soller. “When pottery is broken they [repair the cracks] with gold and so sometimes it’s more beautiful than it ever was. I think that is what Eric is attempting to do. He’s attempting to heal the past pain that he has inherited from the gay community and that is exactly the play that we need right now.”

As Eric works to bond generations onstage, so too does Lopez through his play. “It’s a culmination of all of it,” says Hickey, who won his Tony Award for the paradigmatic play set during the AIDS crisis The Normal Heart, and more recently appeared Off-Broadway in post-marriage equality drama Dada Woof Papa Hot. “This play is really sort of about taking a play like Dada Woof and a play like Normal Heart and marrying it. This is where we’re going, this is where we were, let’s come together and build a country of our own.”

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