Review: THE INHERITANCE PARTS 1 & 2 at Geffen Playhouse

Matthew Lopez's two-part ode to Howards End is an epic in every sense of the word

By: Oct. 21, 2022
Review: THE INHERITANCE PARTS 1 & 2 at Geffen Playhouse

At the end of the first part of Matthew Lopez's THE INHERITANCE, the stage fills up with people we have not seen before. Now, this play has a cast of 14 people - 13 of them men - and most of them playing multiple roles. After 3 hours and 15 minutes, we encounter a bunch of new people who introduce themselves by their first name with a handshake or a quick embrace to Eric Glass, one of the play's two protagonists. And although they are strangers who we will not meet again, we know exactly who these men are. The moment is tender, poignant and staged with a simple beauty. It left several members of the opening night audience - who had already experienced quite a lot - sobbing. And here's betting that every single person returned two and a half hours later for part 2 to be put through the wringer anew.

My further hunch is that tears are a common occurrence within this play - both at that gut punch of a first play conclusion and in several other places. In addition to engaging the intellect, THE INHERITANCE is designed to make an audience feel many different kinds of emotions: sadness certainly over lives lost and squandered; seething bitterness over a country adrift; humor over the many creative ways in which smart people cope and endure; and perhaps even a strong inclination to read, reread or stream a film version of E.M. Forster's HOWARDS END. During some of the play's more didactive sections (of which there are a few), you may also justifiably feel schooled or lectured to and, consequently, peeved that a playwright capable of such a momentous achievement couldn't resist bloating this epic work with thematic underlining. About the only thing you should not take away from THE INHERITANCE is indifference.

Audiences may, in the not-too-distant future, come away remembering the West Coast premiere of Lopez's awards-laden play at The Geffen Playhouse with the same kind of reverence/gravitas that they felt about the premiere of Tony Kushner's ANGELS IN AMERICA exactly 30 years ago at the Mark Taper Forum. Comparisons between these two-part marathons are inevitable given that both examine the LGBTQ experience and the AIDS crisis, albeit through very different prisms. Enormous kudos to outgoing Geffen Artistic Director Matt Shakman, the production's director Mike Donahue and the company and crew of THE INHERITANCE for bringing this landmark to our shores, a gift for L.A. theatergoers who will regret it if they don't buy a ticket. Whatever other obstacles playmakers already face in bringing work to life in a post-COVID landscape, THE INHERITANCE company overcame the departure of Nic Ashe in a key role following an injury and brought in Bradley James Tejeda (a member of the New York company) to take on the role of Adam and Leo. More will be said about Mr. Tejada anon.

THE INHERITANCE is, at base, a story about love - love of other people, of a nation and of oneself. Hotshot author and playwright Toby Darling (played by Juan Castano) and his activist boyfriend Eric Glass (Adam Kantor) are in love and plan to marry until circumstances - some predictable others unforeseen - break them up. The two men have a group of male friends, half a dozen thirtysomething New Yorkers like them, who we also come to know. An older man, Walter (Bill Brochtrup), whom Toby and Eric know casually, moves into their building and ends up profoundly affecting Eric's life, as does - later - Walter's partner, Henry Wilcox (Tuc Watkins). Our story begins with Toby upchucking on a small dog in the lap of Meryl Streep at a party in the Hamptons and concludes, two plays and nearly seven volatile hours later, in a much more serene place. Traversing the landscape of nothing less than the gay experience in America and the legacy of what one generation takes from the previous and passes on to the next, THE INHERITANCE is the fullest of meals. There is a lot to unpack here.

First, there is Toby, a white-hot fireball of talent, self-adoration and deep insecurity who rises, falls and rises again, elevating or taking down several others in his orbit along the way. We witness this man and the effect he has on people, his unsettling need for love or validation. With every triumph or blow (and Toby experiences a ton of both), Juan Castano can age or seem to get younger. The role is an Everest that earned Andrew Burnap a Tony Award. Based on his fearless work here, one suspects that Castano's star will be on the rise as well.

One of the many agents of Toby's downfall is Adam (Tejeda), an actor and the son of a wealthy and influential New York family. Through a chance encounter, Adam ends up meeting the members of Eric and Toby's circle and later ends up successfully auditioning for Toby's play. This takes Toby and Adam off to the regional premiere of the play in Chicago, where the fortunes of both men will experience an ascendency, albeit in different ways.

Back in New York, Eric is facing his future eviction from the magnificent rent-controlled three-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side that has been the home of two previous generations of Glasses. Eric keeps this information from Toby, but he shares it with Walter who can very much relate to anyone having a connection with a place. As Henry, his billionaire real estate developer partner, travels the globe, Walter is happiest at a rural townhouse in upstate New York a place where, many years ago, Walter brought men stricken with AIDS to peacefully die. Walter senses, correctly, that Eric might understand the gravitas of this house. And Eric will eventually get to experience it, but in the company of Henry, not Walter.

Lopez uses descriptions as a painter uses brushstrokes and considering what we hear about this place, on a visual level, no scenic designer will be able to do Walter's house justice. Jamie Todd renders it as a dreamscape dollhouse with its blossoming cherry tree being equally evocative. The steeply-raked platform that is the playing space of THE INHERITANCE is as functional as it is undistracting. Given how much territory the play covers, Todd's design is stellar.

In the prologue of THE INHERITANCE, the entire cast reclines on that aforementioned stage. They've got laptops, tablets and books and are individually and collectively looking to tell a story of their own - "who we are, how we got here and what we mean to each other." A buttoned-up Brit named Morgan (Brochtrup again) is brought in to help. There are in fact, many, many personal narratives being told in the course of these events: Eric's, Toby's, Adam's, Walter's. As for the story of "who we are," as a community, as a social force...that's a thornier more exhaustive proposition and one which Lopez confronts with equal parts whimsy and seriousness. The introduction of Henry to the circle of friends, early in part 2, and the revelation that Henry is a Republican who has given money to the Trump campaign sets off a discussion/argument that while couched as "a difference in philosophy" feels like an ethics debate. Lopez is not averse to letting his play get talky and not always to the work's dramatic benefits.

In other instances, words are rendered unnecessary. In addition to instances of nudity, the production has several sexually explicit scenes that are full company affairs, blisteringly staged by intimacy choreographer Amanda Rose Villareal. Particularly difficult to watch is the rape of Leo (Tejeda again), a male escort hired by Toby who plays a larger part in the lives of Toby and Eric as the play develops.

It is the strength and the breadth of this play that so many richly-detailed characters get their time in the spotlight. Adam, a complicated young man as well as a dramatic catalyst, is as compellingly crafted as the very different Leo, and Tejada plays both men with insight and intelligence. Brochtrup, a mainstay of Los Angeles stages and the Artistic Director of the Antaeus Theater Company, peels back the many layers of Walter's complexities, enabling us to see a man of tremendous moral value, a man every character might do well to emulate. Alas, both Walter and Morgan the narrator drop out of the play for lengthy stretches or completely. So indelible is Brochtrup's mark on this production, that we feel his absence.

Fortunately, there are no shortage of strong performances to keep our attention. As Henry, the nearly emotion-free man of business how is the stoic yang to the rest of the company's passion-drenched yin, Tuc Watkins is himself plenty affecting. This man has made his choices and suffered the consequences. Tantoo Cardinal has a brief but unforgettable scene as the mother of one of Walter's friends.

Eric's journey toward remarkableness, while perhaps not quite as incendiary as Toby's, is a powerful one nonetheless. Kantor's empathy quotient is off-the-charts and we are never for a single second not in his corner.

A shout-out finally to the company members: Jay Donnell, Eric Flores, Israel Erron Ford, August Gray Gall, Eddie Lopez, Kasey Mahaffy, Miguel Pinzon and Avi Roque who establish, people and drive the world of THE INHERITANCE. For a lengthy but never dull stretch of time over two evenings or a marathon single day, these actors let us share Lopez's universe with all its love, loss, regret, sex, passion and rage. No matter your age, gender, ethnicity or sexuality, any lover of great theater should embrace this legacy.

The Inheritance plays through November 27.

Photo of L-R: Kasey Mahaffy, Avi Roque, Israel Erron Ford, Jay Donnell, Adam Kantor, and Juan Castano by Jeff Lorch.

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