Bill Brochtrup and Bradley James Tejeda (all photos by Jeff Lorch)
Simply put, Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance is a masterpiece of writing. This six-and-a-half-hour two-part play about a group of gay men in New York City circa 2015-2018 is a worthy successor and companion piece to Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America from nearly 20 years earlier. Where Kushner dealt with the early years of the AIDS epidemic and blended in the politics of Roy Cohn and even Ethel Rosenberg, Lopez’s gay men enjoy the freedoms earlier generations fought hard for without their really realizing what it was like to live in those near yet distant decades. The current production at Westwood’s Geffen Playhouse should not be missed. It just might be the best work to ever grace their stage since the venue opened in 1975 as the Westwood Playhouse.
August Gray Gall, Bill Brochtrup, Kasey Mahaffy, Israel Erron Ford, and Avi Roque
As the cast gathers around scenic designer Jaimie Todd’s large table like setting, Leo (Bradley James Tejeda) has a story he wants to tell. Lopez’s work is in the form of a memory play, like the Tennessee Williams classic The Glass Menagerie. That is obvious from the constant haze/fog that crosses the rear playing area. But unlike Tom’s singular point of view in Menagerie, all of Lopez’s characters seem to have their own opinions about how the story should be told. To bring more focus to the process, Leo conjures up the spirit of E.M. Forster, the author of one of his favorite novels, Howard’s End. Morgan (Bill Brochtrup), as he prefers to be called, tries to rein in the rambunctious young men, unaccustomed as he was to such open displays of homosexuality in his lifetime. (Forster did not have his first homosexual experience until he was well into his thirties. He wrote a gay novel, Maurice, in the 19-teens, but it was not published until after his death in 1970.)
The main characters in Leo’s story are Eric Glass (Adam Kantor), who rents an amazing apartment on the Upper West Side that has been handed down to him from his grandmother who is now in an urn on the mantlepiece. That rent-controlled piece of heaven may soon be ending because of a loophole in the lease. For the time being, he’s keeping that secret from his fiancé, Toby Darling (Juan Castano), a writer whose gay Holden Caulfield-like novel he’s proud of. Eric befriends a young fellow film fanatic named Adam (Tejeda again) and soon the three are inseparable. When Toby decides to turn his novel into a play, Adam asks if he can audition for the lead role.
Bill Brochtrup and Adam Kantor
While Toby and Adam are in Chicago for the play’s tryout, Eric develops a fond relationship for the older Walter (Brochtrup again), who lives in the same building with his long-time partner Henry Wilcox (Tuc Watkins), a real estate titan who is mostly absent doing world-wide deals. Walter senses a kindred spirit in Eric and tells him about the country house that Henry gave him in upstate New York. He tells him about his life with Henry as we see it played out by their younger selves (Miguel Pinzon and August Gray Gall).
Miguel Pinzon and August Gray Gall
When Walter dies suddenly, he leaves a note for Henry asking that his house be passed on to Eric. Henry and his greedy sons destroy the note and never inform Eric of his inheritance. Meanwhile Toby has become obsessed with Adam who does not return his ardor, but Toby still ends his relationship with Eric. Eventually Henry and Eric start a gentle courtship. The tangled webs these men weave.
Eric enters what turns out to be a sexless marriage with Henry. Toby, still obsessing over Adam, links up with an 18-year-old sex worker, Leo. Toby’s play is a success and he’s spending money on Leo and on a seemingly endless orgy of sex and drugs on Fire Island. Everything and everyone eventually crash and burns, and the survivors learn to pick up the pieces and forge new lives for themselves.
The play’s title has many meanings. The obvious one is Walter’s wish that Eric inherits his country house that they both feel a spiritual connection with. There is also the inheritance of the current generation of gay men to marry and adopt or have surrogacy delivered children because of the political battles the previous generation fought and won. There is also the deadly inheritance of the AIDS virus, though muted today with Prep and Truvada, it still is not cured or inoculated against despite the prolonged struggles of the earlier generation. So much so that an 18-year-old must be told what his HIV diagnosis portends.
Jay Donnell, Eddie Lopez, Avi Roque, MIguel Pinzon, Israel Erron Ford, and Tuc Watkins
Lopez, a spiritual and literary inheritor of Kushner, despite crafting a thoroughly compelling tale of the twisted love and sex lives of his main characters, also takes time to just stop the forward momentum of the play to discuss politics. There is an impassioned debate about the current state of gay culture—the LGBTQXYZ ad infinitum—that once was about fighting oppression is now about making sure no member of the community is left behind, yet no offense is given to the straight world. There is also a funny/sad scene where Eric introduces his new partner-to-be, the conservative Republican Henry, to his liberal activist friends. Henry won’t be cowed by their aggressive stands against everything his billionaire status represents, but calmly explains how a free-market economy deserves more credit for the advances in AIDS treatment than all their disruptive protests.
Lopez has written some truly beautiful monologues and the actors, under the tight and disciplined direction of Mike Donahue, brilliantly bring them to life. Brochtrup has the first and most touching as Walter, as he describes turning his house into a hospice in the 1980s, a last stop for terminal AIDS patients whose families have rejected them, and they have nowhere else to go. Tantoo Cardinal, as Margaret, current caretaker of Walter’s house, doesn’t appear until the final act and delivers a heartbreaking story of how she rejected her gay son, yet reconciled with him at his end thanks to Walter’s intervention. She stayed on and helped care for the 200 plus souls who passed through the house and are now buried about the property.
Castano delivers an impassioned performance that attempts to hide Toby’s fears by making himself appear larger than life. Tejada effortlessly conveys the rich privilege of Adam as well as the self-destructive path of the young Leo whose body is his only currency. Kantor provides the gentle but solid center of the piece. Watkins addss a mature and balanced presence as Henry. Jay Donnell, Eric Flores, Israel Erron Ford, Eddie Lopez, Kasey Mahaffey and Avi Roque, as well as Gall and Pinzon, provide a variety of characters over the course of the play.
On a final note, I must report that the final minutes of Part One provide one of the most emotionally stunning and heartbreaking experiences I have ever had in my 50 plus years of going to the theatre. It seemed the audience as a whole just could not catch its breath, could not control its sobbing, could not help but drench their face masks with their tears. In the era when standing ovations are de rigueur in the theatre, The Inheritance really earns its, even after six-and-a-half hours.