Playwright Matthew López’s two-part drama “The Inheritance” shines brilliantly at the Geffen Playhouse. With a run time of more than three hours for each of its two parts covering gay life, culture—and, crucially, loss—from before the 1980s AIDS epidemic to half way through the Trump administration, “epic” may be an understatement.
But the play’s superb writing, excellent acting and minimal yet creative staging so enthrall the audience that time falls away as we become immersed in its intricate, multi-generational story of gay men in New York—even when braving Parts 1 and 2 (each sold separately) back to back.
“The Inheritance” centers on two characters—smart, sensitive and soulful Eric Glass (Adam Kantor) and his boyfriend, Toby Darling (Juan Castano), a successful and expressive yet impulsive and abrasive playwright—with Bradley James Tejeda playing dual third-wheel roles of rich young actor Adam and impoverished sex worker Leo.
These supremely talented performers are complemented by 11 other equally amazing cast members, each of whom contributes emotionally, physically and often amusingly to the rich and wide-ranging drama, expertly directed by Mike Donahue.
Among them is Bill Brochtrup, exquisite as both the elderly Walter—who becomes a spiritual mentor for Eric—and English writer E. M. Forster, who died in 1970 but whose literary spirit literally infuses the entire narrative. The play unfolds like a novel fluidly read aloud as characters narrate their lives between and within scenes of dialogue.
The opening of Part 1 sets this structure up delightfully with all the characters in a writing workshop incisively guided by the gentle Forster—whom they familiarly call Morgan—with a young man who could be Adam or Leo (Tejeda) asking him how to begin his own novel, referencing the seemingly nonchalant opening of Forster’s 1910 “Howards End” that he holds in his hands: “One may as well begin with…”
This is before we experience Leo’s fraught existence revealed through both Parts 1 and 2, in which devouring literature is his main solace. At one point, Toby buys the homeless Leo a pile of books (titles he has seen on Eric’s bookshelves, none of which he has read)—including Toby’s own novel “Loved Boy” that has become a hit play—but also Forster’s posthumously published, gay-themed novel “Maurice.”
Toby later probes Forster on his legacy while struggling with his own demons, heatedly questioning Forster on why he remained closeted until his death, wondering what his own and other gay men’s identity inheritance might have been had Forster written more—and more openly—on homosexuality during his lifetime.
The answer is of course complicated, as is that of Eric’s subsequent lover Henry Wilcox (Tuc Watkins) when Eric questions him on why he withholds physical affection. That answer lies in the fear and devastation wrought by the AIDS epidemic, with its thousands of deaths and eviscerating effect on gay culture—and loss of mentorship for Eric’s generation.
Though Eric openly laments a lack of gay community and culture stemming from that time, the play’s narrative structure creates one. Characters enact scenes on an elevated platform while the rest are seated around it actively (even lovingly) watching, almost like a chorus, sometimes commenting or giving and taking props such as drinks, clothes and books.
However, the structure of Part 2—which picks up where Part 1 leaves off—is more episodic and has a harder time wrapping up. Its scenes are longer and more didactic, starting with an astute political discussion and later featuring a mother’s point of view (Tantoo Cardinal, whose gravitas mesmerizes the audience despite her low-key delivery) on her son coming out as gay and dying of AIDS in the 1980s.
But Part 2 also sees the set’s black background open up more to reveal dazzlingly lit scenes in colors reflecting the energy and emotion of the action, such as pastels for a wedding, soft orange for sunset and bright beachy colors for intensely drug-fueled parties on Fire Island where Toby takes Leo (Bradley James Tejeda) and during which the boy is routinely and brutally abused by gay men.
Such sexuality is portrayed viscerally in “The Inheritance”—with partial nudity and two instances of full nudity—but also playfully, such as a scene early in Part I where Eric and Toby enact sex metaphorically (and hilariously) through calisthenics in Forster’s workshop.
Sex and physical intimacy figure prominently in the generation of 30-somethings depicted, but so does marriage, New York having legalized gay marriage in 2011. The social institution is meaningful and important to these men, a choice their generation is allowed to make for the first time in history.
Even beyond sex, the acting is physical—lots of movement by strong and nimble actors running, leaping, dancing and in varying stages of lovemaking—adding to the play’s engaging energy, but balanced by quieter scenes of tender depth, enough to elicit audience tears, even sobbing.
Especially poignant is the final scene of Part 1—a tableau beautifully orchestrated and timed to touch the heart and soul—bringing home to the audience the profound toll of AIDS, but also potential for healing, recovery and regeneration of community. If you only manage to see Part 1, it will have been enough, but you will not want to say goodbye to these captivating characters so soon.
“The Inheritance” continues at the Geffen Playhouse’s Gil Cates Theatre, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles, through Nov. 27, with performances for Parts 1 and 2 on different days, Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets range from $30 to $149 and can be purchased by calling the box office at (310) 208-2028 or visiting GeffenPlayhouse.org. Masks during the performance are required.