What is a legacy? For Jewish thirty-something Eric Glass, a grandmother’s experience during the Holocaust constitutes a major part of that birthright.
In Matthew Lopez’s masterful 2018 drama “The Inheritance,” activist Glass – whom the Puerto Rican playwright has called “my central character” – is conscious of his Jewish heritage as well as the contribution of a major closeted author’s work to his sexual orientation. That writer is E.M. Forster and the seminal 1910 novel is “Howards End.”
Lopez has brilliantly adapted its plotting and themes in a wide-ranging exploration of the lives, loves, and legacies of Glass and other 21st century gay men. SpeakEasy Stage at the Calderwood Pavilion in Boston – the first company to present the two-part drama since it won the 2020 Tony Award for best play – is giving this long but totally absorbing work (over six hours with several intermissions) an electrifying performance that all theatergoers should find compelling.
Tautly directed by company artistic director Paul Daigneault, “The Inheritance” presents the personal and communal relationships of Glass, his playwriting love Toby Darling, and a rich ensemble of diverse characters on a thrust stage that creates a you-are-there experience for the surrounding three audience sections. Forster’s London is now Lopez’s New York City, and the novel’s title rural location is now the play’s upstate New York home.
In Lopez’s inspired conception, Morgan – Forster’s middle name – serves as a mentor-narrator who reflects on the days long before same-sex marriage when he concealed he was gay from the public and held off publishing his 1913 novel, “Maurice,” a frank examination of the title character’s orientation.
At the same time, the playwright provides context and contrast for the drama’s connections to “Howards End.” Theatergoers learn that Glass’s veteran grandfather helped liberate Dachau and that he inherited his West End Avenue rent-controlled apartment from his grandmother Miriam, a refugee from Germany. Once Toby moves in with Eric, the novel’s Schlegel sisters become the parallel for the pair.
Eventually, the play’s rich title takes on specific relevance. Walter Poole – a friend for whom Eric cares greatly —leaves him the upstate home in a note. Walter’s once-closeted real estate broker love, Henry Wilcox, and his sons attempt to conceal this inheritance. (As Wilcox and his son Charles do with the willing of Howards End to Margaret Schlegel in Forster’s novel). Elsewhere, switched bags in the play call to mind the switched umbrellas in the novel, and both works include an unexpected embarrassing recognition. At various points in the play, class factors – the imminent eviction of Eric from the rent-controlled flat and well-to-do Trump-supporting Henry’s business dealings with Saudi Arabia – come into play.
Throughout both parts of the play, characters’ honesty and ethics are tested and examined as much as their love and caring. Toby in particular denies his real childhood in writing a hit play. Later, he turns a new relationship with a vulnerable young man named Leo – who resembles Adam, an actor about whom he obsesses – into a situation recalling “Vertigo.” Henry will admit that Walter bequeathed the cherry tree-adorned upstate New York home to Eric (a pivotal admission that parallels the one in “Howards End.”)
In one emotionally charged stretch of the play, Eric, his friends, and Henry share a wide-ranging and insightful discussion about what it means to be a gay man, the toll of AIDS, assassinated Jewish activist Harvey Milk, the absence of a film about Black gay writer-activist Bayard Rustin, homophobia, and how far America has progressed with regards to diversity. Ultimately, as the full importance of Walter’s home is revealed, Eric continues to serve as both a role model of caring – especially as he protects Leo – and someone as special as the cherry tree he cherishes there.
The superb SpeakEasy Stage cast fulfills all of the Herculean challenges of Lopez’s epic play. Eddie Shields is alternately touching and stirring as Eric – whether embracing his heritage, struggling to find real mutual love and trust, or learning to fully value his own worth as a man. Mark H. Dold has all of Morgan’s reticence as he follows and advises the 21st century gay men who have no trouble accepting their identity. He also catches Walter’s impassioned caring for Eddie.
Jared Reinfeldt captures Darling’s cruelty in putting down initially self-effacing Eric and his growing delusion regarding Adam, Leo, and fame. Dennis Trainor Jr. finds Henry’s no-nonsense business priority and his affecting memories of his love with Walter. Special credit goes to Yo-El Cassell for nuanced movement and intimacy direction and Karen Perlow for evocative lighting.
“The Inheritance” should have theatergoers of all colors, creeds, and orientations giving serious thought to their own views about themselves and others. In an age of growing polarization, Lopez’s poignant play and SpeakEasy Stage’s soaring staging make its timeliness a powerful legacy for everyone.
The Inheritance runs through June 11 at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. For tickets, visit speakeasystage.com.