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.