Failure to connect

In which I wonder who "The Inheritance" is for.

When I started this newsletter, I said that I would only be recommending shows that I loved instead of writing negative reviews of shows that I hated, and I intended to stick to that rule. Then I saw The Inheritance. My response to the play was visceral — Part 1 irked me, but there were at least a couple moments I appreciated; Part 2 was infuriating. Given the praise that’s been heaped on this show (I haven’t read the recent reviews yet, though I’m told they’re more mixed), I feel like I can’t just sit on my hands and not say anything. On the one hand, there are different standards when it comes to queer art, and I’m especially reluctant to criticize a play about gay men on Broadway when I know the challenges of getting a play about gay men to Broadway. On the other, the show’s depiction of gay men is damaging, and it’s worth calling out.

Because The Inheritance falls somewhere between an homage to and an adaptation of Howards End, I suppose it’s only fitting that it would occasionally feel old-fashioned. But for a work that has been heralded by some as the defining gay play of this generation, there’s no excuse for the retrograde sexual politics running through this two-part epic. The Inheritance displays a baffling discomfort with gay sex. At first, it’s something of a joke, with Morgan (that would be E.M. Forster himself, played by Paul Hilton) demanding that the play shy away from any explicit portrayal of man-on-man action. And so we get a choreographed scene of Eric Glass (Kyle Soller) and Toby Darling (Andrew Burnap) “fucking” — not fucking at all — that’s played for laughs. That wouldn’t be a problem if the play’s subsequent depictions of sex weren’t so repulsive.

There are really only two sex scenes that follow, one in each part. The staging still isn’t explicit, but the narration certainly is. The first is a lengthy monologue that begins as a steamy “I never thought it would happen to me…” story, describing an orgy in glowing, celestial terms — and then very abruptly turns into a nightmare. There’s panic. Blood in the underwear. An HIV scare. Adam (Samuel H. Levine) is allowed his moment of pure bliss, only for it to descend into a hellish horror show. Something similar occurs in Part 2, with Leo (Levine, again) being coerced into getting passed around at a Fire Island sex party. What starts as fun and consensual again turns into something perverse and terrifying. Drug-fueled mania. Sexual assault. More blood in the underwear. If your six-and-a-half-hour gay play has two sex scenes, and both of them end with a character bleeding from his ass, it’s hard not to feel like your six-and-a-half-hour gay play hates gay sex.

I do not think that gay playwright Matthew Lopez hates gay sex, but there is a surprisingly retrograde morality to The Inheritance, a play that punishes pleasure and indulgence. Certainly there is sympathy for hedonist Toby and his inadvertent protégé Leo, but they suffer over and over again, and The Inheritance’s mishandling of addiction and sex work reflects a startling lack of care for their characters. The treatment of Leo is especially galling. The show may be going for compassion, but all I felt was condescension and — in the scene when Leo eats peanut butter with his hand while the other men on stage throw things at him — exploitation. Is there a lesson to be learned here? Because it reads like trauma porn. It’s hard to reconcile the genuine respect and warmth the play shows for the generation of men lost to AIDS with the way it treats Leo, who is living with HIV. Yes, he ultimately triumphs, and — spoiler alert — writes the novel called The Inheritance that (sigh) we’ve been hearing throughout the play. But that doesn’t make up for the many moments in Part 2 that treat him as a cautionary tale.

Look, those impossible standards of queer art are real: a gay play can’t possibly encompass the full spectrum of identity. Gay stories don’t need to have happy endings or depict aspirational love stories or shy away from the dark side of sex. And yet, there’s something troubling when this is the story being told, not to mention being championed as the next coming of Angels in America. The comparison is not Lopez’s fault, but the intentionally epic scope of his work should have allowed for more nuance, for less empty melodrama, and yes, for maybe a single major character to not be a cis white man. There’s an entirely separate conversation to be had about the play’s demographics, but since we’re on the subject, yes, it’s absurd that The Inheritance exclusively focuses on hot, fit, able-bodied, cis white men. (And no, a throwaway line in a clunky brunch scene about supporting trans women of color does not equal representation.) The play has less interest in creating any emotional interiority for the characters of color quite literally sitting on the sidelines than it does in reminding the audience that gay billionaire Trump supporters are people, too.

I didn’t set out to be so bothered by The Inheritance — I would hope no one sits down for an entire day of theater with the assumption that they’re going to hate it, because that sounds truly miserable! And I do feel that we as a community can sometimes ask too much from our art. But the other side of that is blindly supporting anything in the name of representation, which doesn’t feel like the solution either. It’s imperative to turn a critical eye to the work that is supposed to speak to us, especially to ask why this is the version of queer life being shared with the masses. I understand the appeal of The Inheritance, and, particularly in certain moments, I can appreciate why it resonates. But if a play like this making it to Broadway is meant to reflect progress, why does it feel like such a colossal step backwards?

Photo via Matthew Murphy.

Loop-de-loop

In which I compare two incomparable shows.

One of the many things that thrilled me about A Strange Loop — a show I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since I first saw it in June— was the way it used autobiography and metanarrative to reclaim a space traditionally dominated by straight white men. The show is not Michael R. Jackson’s life story, but his experience of writing a musical about a black gay man writing a musical about a black gay man clearly found its way into the text. It felt radical to see such an inward-facing (and outward-facing!), endlessly layered exploration of creativity and self from Jackson’s unapologetically black, queer perspective, given theater’s long history of navel-gazing white men. There have been plenty of shows about the process of writing a musical, but A Strange Loop never felt remotely like anything else I’d ever seen, and I haven’t seen anything like it since.

I say that because I’m about to compare A Strange Loop to another show, and I want to be clear that both of these musicals are completely distinct and essential in their own ways — but yes, the comparison is there. Soft Power, which is now running at the Public, has an entirely different and powerfully relevant voice, but it also uses autobiography and metanarrative and, indeed, a plot about writing a musical as a reclamation of space. Soft Power is not only an answer to the lack of Asian and Asian-American representation in theater, but also a fascinating subversion (and unflinching indictment) of the kinds of stories that have been told. Just as A Strange Loop had its targets when it came to the black stories deemed acceptable and profitable by older white producers, Soft Power reckons with a similarly fraught history — in this case, East-West musicals dominated by white savior narratives: shows like The King and I and Miss Saigon, the latter of which Soft Power’s writer, David Henry Hwang, has his own long history with.

Hwang isn’t only the book writer and lyricist of Soft Power (Jeanine Tesori composed the score and wrote additional lyrics) — he’s also one of the main characters. Played by Francis Jue, DHH (as he’s referred to in the Playbill) has been tasked with writing a blockbuster Chinese musical, the first of its kind, by wealthy producer Xuē Xíng (Conrad Ricamora). As Trump is elected and DHH is brutally stabbed in what may be a hate crime — Hwang’s real-life stabbing remains unsolved — Soft Power descends into fever dream chaos. The musical-within-a-play is a surrealist inversion of The King and I, with Xuē Xíng becoming Anna to Hillary Clinton’s (Alyse Alan Louis) King of Siam. It’s a brilliant piece of satire that skewers American imperialism, both onstage (shows like Miss Saigon) and offstage (wars like the one that inspired Miss Saigon). There is real anger and urgency here, with a biting sense of humor that makes it somewhat easier to digest.

But as in A Strange Loop — again, these shows are so different, but too inadvertently locked in conversation to eschew the comparisons — there is a relentless undercurrent of tenderness and emotional honesty in Soft Power. It is, at times, broad and very funny, but it is also overwhelmingly moving, particularly as it reaches its climax. Hwang’s work turns out to be, among so many other things, a raw depiction of trauma, both personal (the inexplicable act of violence perpetrated against him) and collective (the slightly more explicable act of violence perpetrated against the country as a whole). There are moments when Soft Power feels like therapy, working to process the unthinkable, and yes, a random stabbing and the rising tide of fascism both feel impossible until they aren’t. How does Hwang move forward — how do any of us? I’m not sure there is one answer, but the show’s assemblage of faces and voices that have too often been marginalized feels like a defiant step in the right direction.

Photo via Craig Schwartz.

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