Howard’s End, the classic novel by E. M. Forster is one that I have never read, but I did see and fall in love with the 1992 movie that stars the amazing Emma Thompson as Margaret Schlegel, Helena Bonham Carter as sister Helen, Vanessa Redgrave as Ruth Wilcox, Anthony Hopkins as her wealthy husband, Henry, and Samuel West as the pitiful but lovely Leonard Bast. The gorgeous film has been described as a touching deconstruction and examination of the three social classes of Edwardian England at the beginning of the 20th Century, with the Wilcoxes as the Victorian capitalists, the Schlegel sisters as the enlightened bourgeois brimming over with humanistic and philanthropic tendencies, and the young Bast standing in for the struggling working class intellect fighting hard to survive in London as a mere clerk.
The dual plot delicately revolves around a death-bed wish by Ruth, the sickly and ignored wife of Henry Wilcox, a man of significant wealth. She asks to bequeath her beloved country house, Howards End, to Margaret, and not one of her children or husband. The Wilcox family deems this request as financially non-binding and decides to not give the house away, nor tell Margaret, the new and very dear kindred spirit of Ruth’s. Meanwhile, Margaret’s sister Helen has taken a strong interest, mostly philanthropic, in Leonard Bast, a poor working class clerk, who slowly descends the ladder of success, mainly because of Henry Wilcox’s un-asked for advice, at Helen’s insistence and interference. As Margaret gravitates towards Henry Wilcox after Ruth’s death, eventually becoming engaged, Helen becomes more and more aligned with Leonard, and the Howards End finds its way, quite naturally, into its rightful hands. The parallels to The Inheritance are clearly striking.
It’s no wonder that the ambitious playwright Matthew Lopez (The Legend of Georgia McBride, The Whipping Man) was struck by the political and social layers of Howards End and saw within a construct that could fit somewhere inside the psyche of a new generation of gay men, especially taking into account Edward Morgan Forster’s own personal battle with his visibility and hidden sexuality. Paying a certain homage to the fore-bearers of gay culture, The Inheritance tackles a tremendous amount of complicated territory, pushing its place onto the fireside mantle somewhere beside Kushner’s far more ethereal Angels in America. With a slightly aggressive and pompous stance of an overly confident pretty boy, Lopez dares us to look away from its imperfect but devastatingly emotional six acts and seven hours, even as the play pretends to be a bookend to the angelic, “most beautiful and far reaching introduction to a place and time representing the History of Gay America in the 1980’s“. Even in comparison to that, The Inheritance is most decidedly a masterpiece, almost measuring up to Kushner’s triumphant Angels as it dives head first into 21st Century queer politics and the economic discrepancies within modern culture and society. It owes itself more to the closeted E. M. Foster than Kushner though, yielding a monumental piece about the turbulent lives of a group of young, ambitious gay New Yorkers floundering and excelling, just like the Schlegels, but this go round, Forster’s sisters, who are now Lopez’s lovers, sometime after the peak of the AIDs crisis are strutting proudly into the gay frontier of love relationships, won marriage equality, and the loss of souls to addiction and community abandonment. Spanning generations of attachments and the entanglement of lives and loves, The Inheritance bridges the themes of E. M. Forster’s novel, attaching itself to the past and present New York City, and tries to understand the legacy that threads the two together and what the two worlds owe one another.
One by one they wander in, taking their places on the bare rectangle platform, designed with a beautiful refined ease by Bob Crowley (Broadway’s An American in Paris) with superb lighting by Jon Clark (Young Vic/St. Ann’s A Streetcar Named Desire), solid sound design by Paul Arditti (West End/Broadway’s King Charles III) & Christopher Reid (West End/Broadway’s Harry Potter…) and gorgeously period-crossing original music by Paul Englishby (West End/Broadway’s The Audience).The space easily serves forth the delicious feast we are about to partake in and be moved by with such beautiful force. We aren’t sure who the main story-teller at the moment is, but all these men seem to be in need of some guidance to write the stories of their lives. They turn, most delicately and decisively to the wise and structured E. M. Forster, played with sweet stiffness by the glorious Paul Hilton (“The Crown“). With his steady and kind repressed hand, and as directed with impeccable care by the magnanimous Stephen Daldry (West End/Broadway’s Billy Elliot, Skylight), the hounds of a rethought Howards End are released, fighting the “writer’s valued tool, procrastination” and diving full on into the tangled web of The Inheritance.
It all starts with a voicemail, introducing us to the gentle and kind Eric Glass, played to perfection by the wonderful Kyle Soller (National’s Edward II) and his boyfriend, Toby Darling, a writer of narcissistic impression, played fully by the handsome Andrew Burnaps (Vineyard’s This Day Forward). “Eric Glass did not believe he was special“, we are told, and while that affliction never enters the mind of Toby, Burnap’s young writer saunters with an entitled pride, although his past doesn’t support his construct. He has written an acclaimed and self-described autobiographic novel, although based on that same construct, that he is now adapting for the stage. He believes in his power far more than the gentle Eric does in his own, and even as they are presented initially as the love-struck couple, we see the cracks and the mismatched puzzle pieces colliding far before the foreseeable destruction that comes in the form of a duality reminiscent of Forster’s Leonard Bast.
The contrast, especially in that deliciously sexually interaction between these two and Hilton’s Morgan encapsulates all that this play is laying out; the levels of advance and the traps we all can fall into. With Lopez replacing umbrellas with Strand Bookshop bags, the introduction of Adam McDowall, forcible portrayed by the breathtakingly good Samuel H. Levine (LCT’s Kill Floor), one of the threads that will lead to destruction and enlightenment is off and running with a clarity and authentic-ness that is quite appealing and forever heart-breaking. Levine does an excellent job playing the leading man-to-be, a stand in of half sorts of Forster’s Bast, although dramatically and financially not one and the same. His initial introduction to the cast of others: Hugo Bolton as Jasper, Robert Boulter as Charles/Peter, Hubert Burton as Tucker, Syrus Lowe as Tristan, Michael Marcus as Jason #1/Paul, and Michael Walters as Jason #2, leaves us all, including Eric and Toby, wanting more and more of the complex creature, a lucky orphan adopted into wealth and privilege, in a way that only Toby could dream of. Levine also excels later on, ratcheting up the drama most determinedly by playing the other slice of Bast, the downtrodden and emotionally abused and discarded Leo with a powerfully emotional delicacy that makes it harder and harder to see them personified by only one person.
In the other thread that most beautifully transcribes Howards End into this century, is also brought forth by the phenomenal Hilton as the Ruth stand-in, Walter, the ignored husband of Henry Wilcox. It’s a pitch perfect portrayal of love emerging and being discarded by the powerful and wealthy Henry, played most elegantly and intelligently by the excellent John Benjamin Hickey (Broadway’s Six Degrees of Separation). Floating alongside, deepening the attachment most majestically, we have Jack Riddiford embodying the form of the Young Walter and Burton diving in once again as the Young Henry. Hickey’s Henry doesn’t enter into the rectangle of truth until much later, as Eric and Walter’s friendship, a beautiful recreation of Redgrave/Thompson’s Ruth and Margaret, is forever formulated, but Henry’s intense personage hangs over the emotionally touching connection long before. Culminating in the most delicious re-imagining of the dinner scene straight from the Merchant/Ivory film, when Redgrave struggles to understand Margaret and her friend’s feisty involvement in the Suffrage movement, and unable to fully digest all these women’s political and intelligent view points. Lopez does this alignment justice with a gay oral history told by the greek chorus of gay male friends at Eric’s 35th birthday party (another 35th, just like the marvelous Miss Bobbie at Companya few blocks away) that hits hard and wide, even when not exactly as embracing of all topics, including Prep and living with HIV, divesting the old stereotypes that gay sex leads to death and disease. But it is left up to Walter and ultimately Henry, to make these young men understand the agonies that his generation faced when AIDS devastated a whole swath of their generation, a result that I personally carry as deeply and strongly as many others my age.
The third act, filling out Part I of The Inheritance has the dynamic destruction of the narrator and the device that served the first three acts so well. The tears that flow just before each interval testify to the delicacy of the writing and poignancy of the truth that Lopez is trying to enlist. It sometimes feels manipulative, and sometimes the stereotypes of the gaggle of gay men that surround the four or five main characters grows tiresome. But it is the depth of disappointment that is inflamed with the Wilcox’s decision to ignore Walter’s deathbed request when the imbalances of empathy and emotional thought are more blatantly exposed. He throws forward the further collapse with the Hilary question, “Are you sure she’s going to win?” that piles on the parallels between the superficial decadence of the modern gay man’s lifestyle of prosperity and the rigid class system of Edwardian England, stomping forth the complicated inequalities that define our own need for external validation and instant gratification. The social system, although less cleanly defined still does define, with Henry Wilcox as the billionaire gay Republican at one end, and the homeless rent boy addicted to crystal meth at the other, even with the thin thread of disavowed connection between the two coming up to the surface for a grasp of air. There is “a difference in morality“, Jasper (Bolton) defiantly declares, but does wealth and privilege, sprouted forward quite remarkably by Wilcox at his brunch meeting with Eric’s friends, negate the advances of civil rights and the gay movements forward. Does this imbalance demolish the concept of equal opportunity for all, even those without a huge bank balance to buy their influence. Leo’s poverty rings true, but it’s really in Toby’s destruction of Morgan that decidedly brings Act I to an emotional close, in its both beautiful writing and the cruel and ultimately deadly blow it brings to the narrator, Forster.
After the break, I was thrilled beyond belief to arrive back at the theatre for Part II, even after the tearful spot of trouble I found myself in throughout Part I. Morgan is gone, for the most part, and the meaninglessness of faux art and Fire Island Pine partying is all the rage. Civil rights have advanced, far beyond the closeted Forster’s era, but troubles remain as clear and disconcerting as ever, with friendships fracturing, partnerships dissolving, and the abandonment of one another the biggest disease of the modern gay man. The rectangle of community rises and falls, going from communal table to dance floor to graveyard memorial, as the pack finds themselves fighting for our nature’s soul, leading us to a ghostlike apparition that digs deep into our heart and breaks all resistance down. Troy makes his re-entrance in style (“Did you miss me?) dragging the beautiful, tender, and damaged Leo down a beach boardwalk to destruction, crashing a wedding and himself in that order. “Who said anything about falling in love?” is the phrase of the sun drenched blue dance party, seeing the fall-out from a far, but I didn’t see the blessed twist that waits for Leo. His winged creative flight is as satisfying and scary as they come, seeing destruction, and than salvation in the care of the house that forever belongs to Eric, long before he was even aware how perfect it all fit.
It also ushers in the magnificent, although slightly underused, Vanessa Redgrave (Broadway’s The Year of Magical Thinking) as caretaker Margaret, a beautifully structured nod on so many emotional levels to the Howards End character, Ruth, she portrayed in the film. Margaret’s story is brutal and engaging, traversing all that is at stake in The Inheritance. It’s a ‘passing-down’ moment, an Inheritance of style and connectivity with the likes of Forster, Kushner, and Redgrave, neatly encompassing all the themes of community, engagement, and art, dysfunction and alignment of love and care, acknowledging all and more that can be said of the young men who arrive at this house and their complicated and tragic need for salvation.
The performances, even the over exaggerated, revel in the brittle difficulty of this modern age, finding truth and togetherness against the force of humanity and this difficult time we find ourselves in. “How much do I matter?” is where its power and thought-provoking center lives. Surrounded by ghosts of men who were lost before their time, The Inheritance is guaranteed to bring forth the tears, even when put off a bit here and there with its overly simplistic dive into crystal meth, sexual addiction, and exploration. It is an exhausting and exhilarating way to spend a day in London’s West End at the Noël Coward Theatre after it transferred successfully from the Young Vic, but the journey is well intended, containing truths that need to be told and a message to all to try to do better. The ending struggled to enter my soul as much as the rest of this long “400 page” play that seems to be co-created by its ancestors and the triumphant. They speak of a future that we know nothing about, one that feels too rosy and optimistic, especially with all the dreadful realness of the world that we see around us, where “faggot” is still a hostile and purposeful snarl. I hope they are right, though, and the difficulty for me to see brightness and clarity in our collective future is misguided. Fingers crossed.
Forster’s Howards End, much like his Maurice, is gorgeous and deep, and as told in the beloved Merchant/Ivory film and reformulated into this epic masterpiece, The Inheritance by Lopez delivers on so many levels of observation and deconstruction in class structure and sociopolitical decrees that it is a wonder that it works as well as it does. Lopez finds his way through these themes and constructs them all most delicately and compassionately into a different time and place while holding true to the questions the story raises. It plays on Forster’s Maurice and the gay civil rights movement with clarity and sweet charm, developing ideas of prosperity and privilege that impact our fearlessness and pride. I couldn’t rise to my feet and applaud enough at the end of those nearly 7 hours, especially knowing that I’ll most likely have another chance, quite happily, to see The Inheritance once again when it floats over on Angel’s wings to Broadway, hopefully fully intact and ready to stomp its way onto the streets where this play lives.
Vanessa Redgrave’s Ruth would, and should, be very proud.
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