Still, in its first half The Inheritance is stellar—funny, fast-paced, and intensely moving. The Young Vic production is directed by Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Crown), who utilizes minimal production elements to enable the leaps in time between Forster’s world and the reality of Eric and Toby. Playing both Forster and the ailing Walter, Hilton gives an astonishing performance, including a monologue about enduring the 1980s that seems to last upward of 15 minutes and is riveting throughout. Also doing double duty is Levine, playing Adam, a cocky young actor, and Leo, a sex worker who occupies the role Leonard Bast plays in Howards End. As Toby grows closer to Leo, Eric forms a relationship with Henry (John Benjamin Hickey), Walter’s grieving husband, who’s also a billionaire who voted for Trump.
What’s surprising is how neatly the story of Howards End fits into the story of Eric, Toby, Henry, and Leo. The conflicts of the novel (liberalism versus capitalism, art versus money) continue to rage, and Lopez’s characters occupy a world that seems to be as rapidly evolving as Forster’s was. Forster, a closeted gay man, marvels at the modern experiences he witnesses within the play. “You have allowed me to see what I could not have lived,” he says. “I think your lives are beautiful. And I know at what cost they have come.” It’s a profound moment of communion between the past and present that’s echoed in the conclusion of the first half of the play, as Eric gets some sense of the volume of gay men who lost their lives in the 1980s and 1990s.
It’s in the second half that the play goes awry. Lopez shifts tone, becoming almost painfully earnest, and peppering the script with heavy, preachy pronouncements about the responsibilities gay men owe each other. The conclusion is drawn out even further by a scene that seems to have been written for Redgrave, playing the housekeeper at Walter’s beloved home upstate. The actress originally played the role of Ruth Wilcox in the 1992 film of Howards End, and while her casting is a neat moment of synergy between Lopez’s play and his source material, the extended interlude serves no narrative purpose and drags toward its end.
It’s also in the second half that the title’s secondary reference becomes clear. The Inheritance refers to a cultural heritage passed down from generation to generation of gay men, but it also refers to a literal inheritance—the disease one character describes as “a chain of infection that had been passed down over the years.” Lopez is explicit about his debt to Forster and Howards End, but he avoids referencing the works of culture that have shaped gay identity since then, many of which grapple with the AIDS era. The cultural and physical inheritances, though, are inextricably linked. Artists before Lopez faced a more urgent task—not just to define gay identity through art, but also to ensure it survived. The Inheritance, rooted in a work published more than a century ago, sometimes feels like it’s only telling half the story.