Forster Meets Grindr in Hugely Entertaining 'The Inheritance'

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Tuesday May 10, 2022
Originally published on May 3, 2022

Jared Reinfeldt and Eddie Shields in SpeakEasy Stage's The Inheritance. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.
Jared Reinfeldt and Eddie Shields in SpeakEasy Stage's The Inheritance. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.  

"Toby, this script is over four hundred pages!," an agent tells playwright Toby Darling in "The Inheritance," You can't ask an audience to sit through a play that long." The audience at the Calderwood Pavilion (where the SpeakEasy's exemplary production of Matthew Lopez's Tony-winning two-part play runs through June 11) roars with recognition since this moment comes some five hours in. It also expressed their embrace of Lopez's daring idea — to rework a famous novel from a little more than a century ago that brought the world the phrase, "Only connect" — a term that resonates deeply in our much-networked world.

That novel is, of course, "Howards End," E.M. Forster's 1910 story of a series of coincidences that bring together protagonists from different classes: the megarich Wilcoxes, the comfortable, bohemian Schlegels, and the poor couple, the Basts, into an Edwardian melodrama. Lopez transposes the characters to 21st-century counterparts, changing sexes of some, retaining some names, and in a daring move, having the destitute Leonard Bast be represented by two characters played by the same actor, one the other's doppelganger.

Jared Reinfeldt (center) and members of the cast of SpeakEasy Stage's The Inheritance. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.
Jared Reinfeldt (center) and members of the cast of SpeakEasy Stage's The Inheritance. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.  

He also retains the general structure of the novel, but sets it amongst a group of educated, ambitious, and socially mobile young gay New Yorkers towards the end of the Obama administration, specifically Toby and his boyfriend Eric Glass, who live in rent control luxury in Eric's West End Avenue apartment he inherited from his late grandmother. As in "Howards End," property is key to the plot. Not only Eric's digs with river views, but an upstate property owned by their wealthy acquaintances, Walter Poole and Henry Wilcox, who have temporarily moved into their building.

That house — represented on Cristina Todesco's spare, elegant set by a video image of a cherry tree — becomes central to the plot, both in its ownership after Walter scrawls a dying wish that the country house be left to his new friend, Eric. And in its history: in the 1990s, Walter, against Henry's wishes, turned it into a sanctuary to men dying of AIDS.

Eddie Shields and Jared Reinfeldt in SpeakEasy Stage's The Inheritance. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.
Eddie Shields and Jared Reinfeldt in SpeakEasy Stage's The Inheritance. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.  

How the past intercedes with the present becomes the play's central theme as Eric becomes more and more involved in the Wilcox's world, first with his friendship with Walter, then, after his death, an unexpected romance with Henry, who pursues him. Henry enters Eric's life just as Toby, who has adapted his successful novel "Loved Boy" into a play, exits. He has fallen in love with Adam, a social-climbing young actor whom the couple befriended and uses them to get cast as the lead in Toby's play; and slips into heavy drug use when the younger man rejects him. Enter Leo, a young hustler who bears a striking resemblance to Adam, with whom Toby begins a meth-fueled relationship.

Skillfully Lopez threads Forster's novel through the play, even bringing the author in as a character called Morgan to act as a kind-of spiritual gay guru. What may be fun to those who know the novel is to make the connections, but the beauty of "The Inheritance" is how it works as drama, enlivened by Lopez's sure, funny, and very contemporary voice. The play is alive with humor and ideas, willing to digress to address such topics as camp, gay representation, and, of course, the AIDS epidemic, specifically the relationship of today's generation of gay men, for whom Truvada has made a return to the hedonism of the 1970s possible, with the generation before them, decimated by AIDS. At one point, Walter addresses his damage when he argues with Eric's friends about their differences about the epidemic's history. "Whether you realize it or not," he says, "you are the man you are today because men my age paid for your rights with their lives." Then shouting, "There are no gay men my age! Not nearly enough."

Mishka Yarovoy and Mark H. Dold in SpeakEasy Stage's The Inheritance. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.
Mishka Yarovoy and Mark H. Dold in SpeakEasy Stage's The Inheritance. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.  

That generational gap goes both ways, as when Toby confronts Morgan as to why Forster waited until after his death in 1970 (he was 91) to publish "Maurice," his sole gay novel that he first wrote in 1913. "Just imagine what would have happened if you had published a gay novel in your lifetime!" Toby shouts. "You might have toppled mountains. You might even have saved lives." It's an intergenerational bitch-slap.

In a 2019 New Yorker profile Lopez said his biggest influence was "Gatz," a literal reading of Fitzgerald's novel "The Great Gatsby" that the Elevator Repair Group did a decade ago that ran some seven hours. But you also see "Nicholas Nickleby" in its use of narration, and, of course, "Angels in America" in theme and breadth.

It is not as grandiloquent as Tony Kushner's epic — it is more colloquial with sharp dialogue that would be right at home on "Succession," "Hacks," or even "Gossip Girl," the latter in Toby, whose supposed autobiographical novel reflects that show's world. Lopez has an ear for the contemporary gay voice that makes the first two hours unfold like a screwball comedy; it isn't until well into the play do its more emotionally resonant themes emerge, ending in a conclusion of the first part that is amongst the most moving in contemporary theater. That may seem a strong statement, and to some it might just appear to be an emotional ploy. But what makes it so effective is the eloquence of Eric's speech beforehand that sets the moment up with authenticity which makes the moment all that more touching.

Director Paul Daigneault takes a minimal approach, placing the additional cast members, who represent Eric's social set and take turns with the story-telling, along the sides of the elevated platform where they watch the play unfold just feet away from the audience. The effect creates an immediate intimacy that is sustained throughout the two parts. This less-is-more approach enhances the play's cinematic nature, with the changing moods — there are many — enhanced by Karen Perlow's striking lighting design and Charles Schoomaker smart, contemporary fashions.

Mishka Yarovoy and Paula Plum in SpeakEasy Stage's The Inheritance. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.
Mishka Yarovoy and Paula Plum in SpeakEasy Stage's The Inheritance. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.  

The acting? This is a true ensemble in the best sense of the world, each actor supporting each other in what seems a labor of love for all involved. Eddie Shields anchors the play as Eric, its empathetic center. He commands the stage touchingly at the first part's conclusion with a speech describing the first time he enters Walter's house. In the showier role of Toby, Jared Reinfeldt has the cockiness and the model-perfect looks requisite for his self-destructing path. Early on he's quite funny describing his tragic encounter with Meryl Streep; but his performance deepens as Toby also connects with his past. He masterfully captures the beautiful lost boy archetype of gay culture. Mark H. Dold charms as the avuncular Morgan (that was Forster's middle name), and touches as the fading Walter. Dennis Trainor Jr. carefully navigates the thorny character of Henry Wilcox, a powerful tycoon with a smooth manner and a remarkable lack of empathy.

But of the principals, it is versatile Mishka Yarovoy who had the most difficult role, representing the social climbing Adam and the escort Leo, even at one point having a conversation with himself. He's remarkable as both the self-assured star on the rise and another boy lost to drugs. The play's sole female performer is Paula Plum, who appears late in the second half in a scene that could be a one-act in itself. She plays the caretaker of Walter's estate and movingly tells an all too familiar story of mothers with gay sons who moved to New York in the 1980s. It is reminiscent of "Andre's Mother," Terrence McNally's beautiful one-act about a mother coming to terms with her son's death from AIDS.

Eddie Shields in SpeakEasy Stage's The Inheritance. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.
Eddie Shields in SpeakEasy Stage's The Inheritance. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.  

McNally is a fan of the play, having told the New Yorker that upon seeing it in London he had never had such a strong response to a play. (Full disclosure: his husband was a producer of the play.) Adding: "As an eighty-year-old survivor, observer, and participant of the many years covered in the play, it was as if someone were telling the story for the first time—so hot are its passions—and for the last time, with the compassion and wisdom we seek from our artists. Matthew's play is not about the aids experience—it is about the human experience. Only a stunted soul would not rise, soar, and expand to it."

Some have been disappointed by the play's second half, which does resemble, as one dissenter said, a Douglas Sirk film; but isn't that the queer sensibility that Lopez embraces here? In what other play is there an entertaining discourse on the nature of camp? Or of the trauma brought on by Trump's victory that reverberates today with the Supreme Court leak on its upcoming abortion decision? Lopez digresses eloquently throughout and brings Forster into the world of Grindr with his deeply affecting play.

"The Inheritance" continues through June 11, at the Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA. For more information, the SpeakEasy Stage website

Robert Nesti can be reached at rnest[email protected].