Reviews, Stage

Postcard from New York: The Inheritance review

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The Inheritance is a two-part, seven-hour adaptation of E. M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End, set in contemporary New York. It deals with three generations of gay men in the wake of the AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s – before the advent of anti-retroviral and pre-exposure prophylactic medication changed the nature and impact of the disease, at least for upper and middle-class populations in the developed world – in the context of the current crisis of neoliberalism and the rise of Donald Trump.

The play was originally produced at The Young Vic in London in 2018 before transferring to the West End and now Broadway. New York playwright Matthew Lopez developed the play in collaboration with British director Stephen Daldry (An Inspector Calls, Billy Elliot, The Hours, The Crown) and an American-British cast of thirteen, the five leading actors remaining consistent in London and New York.

The production also features a stunningly minimal set and costume design by Bob Crowley. The set is essentially a white box, with a central dais that can be either raised or lowered, on which the ensemble cast lounge around languidly at the start of the show like students waiting for an acting or writing class to begin, and around which they then gather to sit and watch or comment on the action as it unfolds. There is virtually no furniture, the actors mostly wear simple clothes in subdued colours, and most have bare feet throughout the show.

The relationship between a theatrical adaptation and a novelistic original resembles the biological phenomenon of homology (as opposed to analogy), in which the body parts of two different species share a similar structure because of their origin rather than function (the classic example being the relationship between arms and wings). In this case plot, characters and themes (most obviously, the concept of inheritance itself, which is a key motif and plot-device in Howard’s End) are transposed (sometimes in a disguised, divided, doubled or ‘queered’ form) from one narrative setting and artistic medium to another.

Lopez makes his boldest move by recasting the Schlegel sisters of Howard’s End as a gay male couple

The process of adaptation is also thematised by the incorporation of Forster himself (animated with spritely energy by British actor Paul Hilton) as a kind of artistic and personal mentor-figure called ‘Morgan’ (as Forster was known by his intimate friends), who interacts with the modern-day characters, helps them tell their stories and assists with the unfolding of the play. The other characters also refer to Howard’s End and other novels – including Forster’s only overtly gay novel, Maurice, which was withheld from publication until after his death.

In fact, even the off-stage collaboration between playwright, director and actors is replicated onstage by the homologous relationship between Forster and the charming ensemble cast, who at least initially appear to be more or less improvising the action and storytelling, if not the actual story itself. This is especially marked in the pointed use of collective and self-narration in the ‘omniscient’ third person for ironic effect to introduce characters and plot-points and to report on the characters’ thoughts and feelings. There are also some early ‘improvised’ sex scenes using acting warm-up exercises, in a hilarious Brechtian ‘baring of the device’. All of this generates an exhilarating sense of performative lightness and freedom. The use of narration in particular recalls the authorial voice employed by Forster that continually interrupts and comments on the action in the novel.

Here one could point beyond Forster and Howard’s End to Jane Austen, and in particular Sense and Sensibility – a similarly ironic novel about love, marriage, money, property, inheritance and social class. The precursor novel also features two sisters with contrasting personalities, one (in her own eyes at least) more ‘sensible’, the other more given to romantic or idealistic flights of fancy (the ‘sensible’ older sisters, Margaret Schlegel and Elinor Dashwood, are memorably played by the divine Emma Thompson in the film versions of both novels).

Lopez makes his boldest move by recasting the Schlegel sisters of Howard’s End as a gay male couple: conscientious liberal activist lawyer Eric (a deeply felt and anchored central performance by London-based American actor Kyle Soller) and narcissistic aspiring playwright Toby (a witty, mercurial and ultimately anguished Andrew Burnap), who are happily but precariously ensconced in a coveted rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side that once belonged to Eric’s Jewish refugee grandmother (paralleling the Schlegel’s similarly provisional occupancy of their father’s flat in central London).

Meanwhile Forster’s pragmatic and wealthy industrialist Henry Wilcox and his more ethereal and intuitive wife Ruth are transformed into a billionaire property developer teasingly also named Henry Wilcox (and played with ebullient bluster by John Benjamin Hickey) and his life-partner Walter (also played by the versatile Hilton with touching fragility) who share an apartment in the same building. They also own a rural retreat in upstate New York, echoing the country house in Hertfordshire (itself a fictionalised version of Forster’s own childhood home at Rooks Nest) that gives its title to Howard’s End. (The ‘reveal’ of this house at the end of Part One, and again in the final Act of Part Two, is the only significant ‘prop’ in the show.)

What follows is an ingenuous set of variations on the novel which are no less brilliant, moving and salutary for being recognisable, at least to those who’ve read it (or seen the film); for those who haven’t there are complementary pleasures in terms of the plot-twists and emotional vicissitudes. Lopez and Daldry add a few twists of their own, most memorably at the end of Part One in a devastating coup de théâtre I won’t reveal, except to say that it expands the frame of the play and production (as well as the novel) in a way that had me sobbing along with most of the audience, and took me much of the next two hours’ break to recover from.

What follows is an ingenuous set of variations on the novel which are no less brilliant, moving and salutary for being recognisable, at least to those who’ve read it (or seen the film)

After this moment of transcendence, Part Two didn’t quite live up to the promise of Part One. Instead, the play seemed to digress from itself as well as its novel-source in form, content and spirit. The figure of Forster was literally banished from the stage, while the ensemble of other actors also became increasingly absent or marginal. Instead the story of Toby (now separated from Eric) took over, in an increasingly melodramatic spiral of self-destruction and protracted revelations about his past. The use of long backstory monologues, which had been effective earlier in the play, also struggled to hold my attention six hours later, especially when introducing new plot-points, characters and even actors, notwithstanding fine performances from Burnap as the increasingly off-the-rails Toby and Lois Smith as Margaret – the only female character or actor in the show, unfortunately tasked with a rather generic, sentimental and dramatically redundant story about a formerly homophobic mother who becomes a carer for gay men dying of AIDS.

In short, I felt we’d shifted from the late-romantic irony of Forster to the melodrama of Tennessee Williams or Douglas Sirk, but without the former’s tortured brilliance of language, characterization and psychology, or the latter’s pointed use of Hollywood conventions for the purposes of social critique.

Meanwhile the political diatribes and debates about Trump, the contradictions of neoliberalism and the mainstream assimilation of gay culture were enjoyable enough but sometimes felt more like watching a bourgeois domestic satire by Bernard Shaw or even (horribile dictu) middle-period David Williamson. The previously exquisite minimalism of Jon Clark’s lighting and Paul Arditti and Christopher Reid’s sound design also began to crank up and decorate or underscore scenes and speeches, and a similar element of theatricality crept into some of the lead performances.

As a result, Toby’s story became pure soap opera, driven by the mechanics of plot and theatrics rather than the dynamics of character or larger social forces. Here the most tenuous narrative thread for me was that involving the lookalike roles of parvenu actor Adam and desperate rent-boy Leo (respectively played with consummate charm and touching pathos by Samuel H. Levine) as the successive objects of Toby’s narcissistic obsession. The theme of ‘the double’ is of course another melodramatic convention straight out of the Gothic novel by way of Vertigo, but here it was introduced without any stylistic sense of psychological disintegration or nightmare. Indeed I couldn’t help feeling that Toby’s story might have been better served if Adam and Leo had been combined into a single character with a more complex and satisfying dramatic arc. Admittedly the corresponding figures in Howard’s End of the aspirational clerk Leonard Bast and his ‘fallen’ co-dependent partner Jackie are also the weakest link in the novel’s plot and its attempt at a comprehensive portrait of Edwardian class society.

Indeed, the clumsily contrived way Leonard is summarily dispatched in the novel mirrors Toby’s dramatically unconvincing end (no spoilers here, as his death is flagged throughout the play) when faced with the opportunity to finally confront his past. Personally I’d rather have seen him exercise his freedom of choice ‘to live’ (as the closing words of the play exhort us to do) rather than his fate being seemingly pre-determined by childhood trauma and parental role modelling.

In saying this, I’m not necessarily asking for a conventional happy ending. Certainly the novel closes with Margaret reconciled with her sister and husband, and living with them and Helen’s infant son at Howard’s End. Nevertheless the scene is hardly one of domestic bliss or achieved grace. Though Henry’s hypocrisy is forgiven, he is an emotionally broken man, and there’s a sense that their connection with the local countryside and community is similarly fragile. The nostalgic glow of an Edwardian sunset lingers over the novel’s closing pages, with the shadow of encroaching suburbanisation – not to mention global slaughter on an industrial scale – looming on the horizon. In this context the novel’s famous injunction to “only connect” feels almost plaintive. Connect with what, or whom, and for how long?

What does it mean, Eric movingly asks at one point in the play, to be gay now, today? Who are we – whoever ‘we’ are – if we can’t connect with our history, in the form of a shared experience, knowledge, culture or sense of community, transmitted from one generation to the next?

The Inheritance ends with an even more tenuous ménage – Eric, his now-ex-husband Henry, and Toby’s (and Henry’s) former hired lover Leo – living on (and eventually dying of old age) in a kind of pastoral idyll at the house in upstate New York that Walter had turned into a hospice for men dying of AIDS. The medical and social catastrophe of the epidemic lies behind them, as well as the successive ravages of neoconservatism and neoliberalism, and it is implied that they will weather the storm of Trumpism as well.

This is the point at which the play perhaps more than the novel seems to take refuge in sentimentality, and the privileged status of the main characters (with the exception of Leo and the ups and downs of Toby’s childhood) begins to limit their perspective as well as stretching our capacity to care. As my companion at the performance commented afterwards, why not turn their rural retreat into a halfway house for LGBTQ homeless youth, or others plagued by discrimination and disadvantage? It’s worth noting in this regard that in the US the cost of PrEP treatment for HIV infection is around $US 20,000 per year, which effectively restricts its use to those who can afford to pay for it, because of big pharma monopolies and political-administrative indifference to communities most at risk (not to mention the rest of the underdeveloped world).

In a similar vein I couldn’t help wondering why Lopez (who himself has Puerto Rican heritage) and Daldry envisaged and cast all its main characters as white, limiting cultural diversity to only a few other members of the ensemble in supporting roles. To be sure Forster (like Chekhov) was writing about the vanishing world he knew, socially and culturally, but this is hardly the case for the playwright and director of The Inheritance (or its audience). A more intersectional perspective would allow for a chain of equivalence extending back to the story of Eric’s Jewish grandmother – and a broader history of oppression rather than privilege.

Indeed the notion of an inherited past (together with its traumas and gaps, its acts of denial and gaping wounds) seems to underlie the play’s title, and implicitly gives it a much wider purview than Howard’s End. What does it mean, Eric movingly asks at one point in the play, to be gay now, today? Who are we – whoever ‘we’ are – if we can’t connect with our history, in the form of a shared experience, knowledge, culture or sense of community, transmitted from one generation to the next? In this regard the most powerful gift of The Inheritance may be its evocation of spiritual and artistic mentorship, not only between generations, but also across the river of time and forgetfulness that separates the living and the dead. Perhaps here the phrase ‘only connect’ acquires its most resonant meaning.

The Inheritance opened on Broadway at The Ethel Barrymore Theatre on November 17, 2019.

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