“What does it mean to be a gay man today?” a thirtysomething New Yorker named Eric Glass asks in “The Inheritance.”
For Eric and his friends in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of Matthew López’s epic, Tony-winning drama, there’s nothing simple about that question.
Finding the answer requires a reckoning with the past — specifically, the dreadful toll taken by the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s — and with their own obligation to ensure the next generation understands the meaning of all those lost lives.
“The Inheritance” is not a work of blinding brilliance, but it is a work of deep humanity and compassion.
Intent on covering the sizable dramatic territory he has staked out for himself, populated with nearly three dozen characters, López too often sacrifices depth for narrative speed. Consequently, “The Inheritance” ultimately proves more impressive in concept and ambition than in execution.
Yet the tale López tells is an important one, and it’s no small feat that “The Inheritance” is seldom less than engrossing for most of its 6½ hours. (It’s being presented in two parts, each running three-plus hours, with two intermissions in each part.) As the SpeakEasy production entered its final stretch, my companion remarked: “I’ve been watching this play for five hours, and I don’t want it to end.” Much of the audience, grouped in three sides around a rectangular stage, seemed of like mind.
SpeakEasy director Paul Daigneault keeps the cast in near-constant motion, now flowing in circles, now converging en masse, a visual expression of the collective, encompassing nature of the history being recounted.
In both premise and structure, “The Inheritance” rests upon the notion that life is a story we write, building upon chapters written by those who came before us. It’s loosely based on “Howards End,” E.M. Forster’s magnificent 1910 novel (there’s also a subplot that seems borrowed from Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”).
At the play’s center are Eric (an exceptional Eddie Shields) and his lover, Toby Darling (Jared Reinfeldt, also compelling). It is Eric who is most conscious of the generational obligation to keep LGBTQ history alive. “If we can’t have a conversation with our past, then what will be our future?” he asks. “Who are we? And, more importantly, who will we become?” Then, in an unvoiced thought, Eric adds: “Who will I become?” In the here-and-now, Eric worries about the dilution of a shared culture, saying: “It feels like all the different facets of queer culture are being stripped for parts and that the community that I came up in is slowly fading away.”
The volatile, damaged, and self-destructive Toby (”My heart is pure. It just happens to be surrounded by the rest of me,” he says) has written what purports to be an autobiographical novel. When he adapts it into a play, it ends up starring a novice actor, the young and wealthy Adam (Mishka Yarovoy), with whom Toby becomes obsessed.
Everyone in Eric and Toby’s circle seems intent on mining their own lives as raw material, writing their way into an understanding of themselves, individually and as part of a shared LGBTQ history. As the play opens in the summer of 2015, the friends are seated in a circle, trying and mostly failing to write, when who should appear but E.M. Forster (Mark H. Dold) himself.
Forster operates within the play as a guide to literary craft — shaping narratives, suggesting plot twists, challenging the motives of the would-be writers and their version of events — and also as a representative of an earlier age devoid of the sexual freedom and openness enjoyed by Eric, Toby, et. al. Until the day he died at age 91 in 1970 — one year after the Stonewall riots that dramatically accelerated the gay rights movement — Forster did not feel free to make his sexuality public.
Memories of the devastation AIDS wrought within the gay community in the 1980s are fresh and painful for the fiftysomething couple Walter Poole (Dold again) and rich real estate developer Henry Wilcox (a very fine Dennis Trainor Jr.). Flashbacks reveal that the responses by Walter and Henry to the AIDS-inflicted suffering around them were very different.
Meanwhile, the friendship that develops between Eric and Walter has profound and lasting reverberations for the younger man. It helps Eric map out a path wherein he can connect past, present, and future — and find his own answer to what it means to be a gay man today.
Play by Matthew López. Directed by Paul Daigneault. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company. At Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Through June 11. Tickets $25-$70 per performance. 617-933-8600, www.SpeakEasyStage.com