Walking into the first reading for Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance, actor Andrew Burnap could not fail.
The playwright had told Burnap, who previously starred in a production of his play The Legend of Georgia McBride, that he just needed a favor; he couldn’t find someone to play Toby Darling for this reading, but Burnap would definitely not be cast in the role. “He used the word ‘never,’” Burnap recalls.
But that impossibility led Burnap to his Broadway debut.
Burnap’s magnetic portrayal of the on-the-rise playwright and covertly wounded soul (the only character in the show who never narrates emotion) wowed Lopez and director Stephen Daldry in that first moment because he knew he could not win. “There was this sort of ultimate permission that it was impossible to fail in this, because I wasn’t trying to achieve anything other than just having fun,” says Burnap. “Every choice that I made in that workshop I feel was based on, ‘Is this fun for me? Is this something that I enjoy doing?’”
Burnap molded the role through workshops, starred in the West End premiere of the two-part epic, and now continues exploring Toby on Broadway. Lesson learned: Never say never.
From the start, Burnap could visualize Toby in Lopez’s language. “It was like Icarus to me; he was flying so close to the sun,” says Burnap. As The Inheritance evolved and Burnap remained in the role, so Toby Darling went from a mid-career playwright to one at the start of his career—though still a daredevil with a soft soul. Lopez has openly stated that Toby is based on himself, but as the man who embodies him, Burnap has created “an emotional mood board.”
Burnap dabs “Matthew’s charming arrogance (that thing that makes Matthew so attractive is his point of view on the world)” with his own natural “childlike joy.”
Plus, “Matthew and myself both share a love and appetite for language that Toby has,” Burnap continues, “and, I think, a desire to mask some of the darker qualities and present a fresher face to the world.” But Toby is neither Matthew nor Andrew, and building Toby Darling is actually an act of deconstruction.
Burnap begins with a charmingly fraught man—a creative with infinite potential, oozing charisma, and the drive to achieve, yet the susceptibility to distraction and the insecurity of a boy never loved. Toby’s arc across the seven-and-a-half hours onstage is about peeling away his self-protective layers to expose a naked core. “Toby has spent his life putting on all of these things, all of these coats, in a way, that then every scene a coat is taken off,” Burnap says.
“You cannot have a single thing that you draw from in terms of the character’s emotional life, because if it’s the single thing, that thing is going to dry up,” says Burnap. “Human beings are designed to desensitize themselves to things that are hard to deal with emotionally. Over a rehearsal period, your homework is to devise this constellation—a sky of stimuli—that you then, on any given night, can respond to.”
That electric feeling of presence and connection is the high Burnap has been chasing since he was a kid. When he was seven or eight years old, his community chorus put on the annual Celebration of Twelfth Night—an original story about good versus evil in the form of Lancelot versus The Green Horse. When the monstrous Green Horse puppet entered the theatre, “I remember it sending shock waves of fear and terror inside me,” says Burnap. “That was the one where I was like, ‘Oh f*ck, I want to be able to make people feel as intensely as I feel.’”
Intensity is certainly on the menu today. As he moves through it night after night, The Inheritance feels real to Burnap. “I know that I’m so close to Toby because when people say things about him, my feelings get hurt,” he admits.
In fact, once he reacted onstage. “Eric says, ‘Toby, you’re the worst mistake of my life,’ and someone clapped in the audience one time, and I fully did a double take,” Burnap recalls. “I looked at them and the entire audience sort of erupted because it was real. I was so mad. It blew my mind.”
With that commitment and compassion, Burnap becomes our most valuable guide: through Toby’s tragedy, he teaches us about our own. “Hopefully, people see Toby’s inability to deal with emotional trauma, specifically in childhood, as a wake-up call to say, ‘We all, as adults, have a responsibility to look at the things in our life—in our past, that have hurt us—and to heal from that.’ Otherwise, we can’t possibly be emotionally intelligent humans in our adult lives,” Burnap says. “There’s a lesson to be as kind to yourself as possible, to understand you can’t be perfect, that you have pain and you have things that hurt is OK.”