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Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance — which won the Olivier Award for Best New Play in 2019 and has been hailed as the Angels in America of this generation — is like the Pete Buttigieg of plays: it has been celebrated as a mainstream gay milestone while stirring resentment and frustration in queer circles.
Lopez recently published a New York Times op-ed defending the play from criticism: “The Inheritance was not my attempt at a grand summation of the past quarter century of queer history,” he asserts. “What I was attempting was an examination of class, economic inequality, and poverty within the gay community.”
On February 20, it was announced that the play would close earlier than scheduled, on March 15, due to struggling ticket sales (although it will now be forced to close even earlier due to Broadway’s shutdown as a precaution against COVID-19). Given The Inheritance’s glowing reception in London, we might look at exactly why The Inheritance failed to connect with New York audiences, especially when taken on Lopez’s own terms.
The play’s blueprint is E. M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End, and Forster appears as a character (called by his middle name, Morgan) to guide the young men in their storytelling. This may be one reason that, although set around 2016, the play is haunted by outdated gay archetypes — specifically, young Manhattanites fawning over rent-controlled apartments on the Upper West Side (as if that’s the most desirable place for young gay men). The leads are all white, while men of color stand around the edges of the stage yelling finger-snapping woke-isms: “Let’s talk about trans rights,” “Let’s finally ratify the motherfuckin’ ERA,” “Let’s talk about the resurgence of HIV amongst gay men of color,” they cheer, then talk about precisely none of these issues for the remainder of the six-plus-hour play.
In his op-ed, Lopez defended his choice to feature white characters. “It is because I am Puerto Rican that The Inheritance is the play it is, not in spite of it. Eric Glass, my central character, may be a white man, but he is a white man who was created by a Puerto Rican one.” But whiteness, which also reflects Forster’s milieu, is only a small part of the problem of how privilege in The Inheritance is pondered yet never challenged, never provoking the characters to any meaningful change.
Lopez’s answer to the question of privilege is Leo, a white sex worker and a caricature — slumped, stinking, and stripped of all agency until a lonely playwright takes pity on him. If Lopez was concerned with economic inequality and HIV’s still-disproportionate impact on lower-income Americans, why not show the reality that Black and brown queer men and trans people are at the highest risk?
The play’s centerpiece is a grand house upstate, in which Eric Glass’s elderly neighbor, Walter, cared for hundreds of men dying from AIDS during the late ’80s and ’90s. The house acts as a tangible manifestation of shared memory and trauma, a trauma that, during the epidemic, many people wanted to ignore and forget.
For the characters, however, their encounters with that trauma feel shallow or disingenuous. Eric confesses to Walter that he “can’t imagine what those years were like,” and Walter tells Eric to imagine all his friends dying from AIDS, bringing Eric to uncontrollable sobs. Personally, I refuse to believe that any gay man living in New York today has never imagined the epidemic this way before.
When Eric visits the upstate house, the ghosts of the dead appear to him in the play’s most stirring moment, yet the spirits function more as emotional props for Eric, not storytellers in their own right. One character’s heartfelt monologue about a near-brush with HIV, resolved easily by his unimpeded access to PEP medication, is particularly tone-deaf.
The Inheritance was written before the 2016 Presidential Election, and changes were made to update its politics. These additions prove inconsequential. None of the leads are directly impacted post-election, despite their feelings of deflation on election night. The richest tension should have come from Henry Wilcox — a Republican who donated money to Trump’s campaign and who becomes Eric’s wealthy boyfriend. Political arguments ensue between Henry and Eric, but there’s never a true reckoning, and when Eric inherits the upstate house at the play’s end, Henry is still friends with everyone. Imagine if, at the end of Angels in America, the ghost of Roy Cohn joined the others as they all let bygones be bygones. Methinks not.
The play closes by telling us that Eric grows up to be “a teacher, a mentor, and eventually a wise old man.” He leaves the house to his children and grandchildren. “They maintain [the house] to this day as a cherished family heirloom.” So instead of using the property for anything like protecting homeless LGBTQ youth or providing medical services to queer people — or for any of the other political urgencies that the play seemed to pat itself on the back for mentioning — Eric neglects the house’s legacy and makes it his private property, passed down through generations of grandchildren enjoying wealth and privilege. Perfect.
Much has been made of E. M. Forster’s credo, “Only connect,” but I find today it sounds too like a Silicon Valley slogan, optimistically hollow. What of the substance of said connections? What, in the end, does The Inheritance really illuminate about how economic inequality affects the gay community? What does it say about our responsibility to connect with our shared past when it comes to HIV?
The message seems to be that remembering the AIDS epidemic need not inspire anything beyond emotional catharsis. That is a profoundly insulting proposition. In The Inheritance’s final image, the men gather in front of an idyllic cherry tree, a site of remembrance and healing at the upstate house, but also, incidentally, a symbol of private wealth. Where Forster’s masterpiece called for movement, urgency, and great work together, Lopez offers a retreat, a backward-gazing passivity.
The Inheritance continues at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre (243 West 47th Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through March 15.