Stage Door Review 2024

The Inheritance, Parts 1 & 2

Sunday, March 31, 2024


by Matthew López, directed by Brendan Healy

Canadian Stage, Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto

March 28-April 14, 2024

Morgan: “Hearts still love, don’t they? And break. Hope, fear, jealousy, desire. Your lives may be different. But the feelings are the same. The difference is merely setting, context, costumes”

Matthew López’s two-part drama The Inheritance is the most important play to appear in Toronto this year. Canadian Stage is presenting the Canadian premiere of the epic work that first premiered in London in 2018 and won the 2019 Olivier Award for Best New Play and the 2020 Tony Award for Best Play. The company has assembled an passionate 13-member cast with astute direction by Canadian Stage Artistic Director Brendan Healy, who in no way tries to imitate the original London production. The play set, in New York City in 2015, is not only a state of the nation play but, more specifically, a state of gay culture play. Its core universal theme is what and how a younger generation can learn from an older generation. There is no question that this is the must-see play of the year.

López’s play is loosely based on E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel Howards End. The novel’s influence on the play is explicit. In the play’s Prologue, we see ten young men reading, writing by hand or tapping away on laptops in what seems to be a writing class held in an empty theatre. Young Man 1 (Stephen Jackman-Torkoff) is bursting with ideas for a novel but is having trouble starting. He pulls out his favourite novel, Howards End, thinking that might give home help. At the same time the spirit of the author (Daniel MacIvor), called Morgan after Forster’s middle name, appears and begins giving Young Man 1 advice. Young Man 1 starts with a variation of the first sentence of the novel and the play proper begins.

The novel concerns the interaction of three families – the wealthy, capitalistic Wilcox family; the middle-class, intellectual Schlegel’s; and the poverty-stricken Leonard Bast and his wife. López’s play shifts the location of the action from England in the early 1900s to New York in the period 2015-18, eliminates some of Forster’s female characters and changes the remaining female characters, with one exception, to gay males. The central focus in the novel is on the Schlegel sisters, whom López transforms into Eric Glass and Toby Darling, partners for seven years. The couple live in the rent-controlled apartment that Eric inherited from his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, which contains memories for him of his grandmother and his parents. We thus begin with the first instance of inheritance as something both tangible and intangible that the older generation passes down to the younger.

As if López’s Prologue were not metatheatrical enough, his main plot contains a mise en abyme. We discover that Toby has published a supposedly autobiographical novel Loved Boythat he is presently trying to adapt as a stage play. We follow Toby’s adaption of his novel into a play simultaneously with López’s adaptation of Forster’s novel into a play. An added self-referential device is having Forster himself act as the main narrator-cum-stage manager for Part 1 of the play which gives us the impression that we are watching the Young Man 1’s play being created as we watch it. This results in a recurring form of humour, like that in Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921), when the narrator announces a change of scene or manner of playing a role that the character doesn’t like. Often we hear a character speak which Morgan then tells us is what the character wanted to say followed by the character speaking what he did actually say.

Designer Michael Gianfrancesco reinforces the play’s presentation of theatre-as-theatre by placing the action for Part 1 and most of Part 2 in what looks like the backstage area of a large theatre not unlike the Bluma Appel where The Inheritance is playing. Only near the end of Part 2 is there a sudden coup de théâtre when a significant change in the set reflect a significant change in the lives of the characters.

Part 1 follows key plot developments in Forster’s novel. Eric Glass (the Margaret Schlegel figure) strikes up a friendship with Walter Poole (the Ruth Wilcox figure) when Henry Wilcox (who has the same name in Forster), Walter’s partner of 37 years, is away on a long business trip and when Eric’s partner is in Los Angeles. Eric learns that the relationship between Walter and Henry cooled when Walter invited a friend of theirs with AIDS to Walter’s country house in upstage New York. The friend died there, a fact that made Walter cherish the house and Henry despise it as polluted by disease. Despite Henry’s feelings, Walter continued to use the house as a hospice for dying friends and eventually for any dying gay men he thought he could help to a less lonely death.

Eric admires the purpose that Walter found in life and wishes he had the courage to do something similar. In the novel Ruth bequeaths the work’s central symbol, the house Howards End, to Margaret rather than any of her relatives. In the play Walter leaves his house in the country to Eric. In both cases the relatives are outraged and destroy the note expressing the dying wishes of the house’s owner.

Part 1 of López’s play ends with Eric finally visiting Walter’s house and having a vision of incredible power of the importance the house had for all those who died there. This scene is the strongest, most emotional episode of the entire two-part play and leaves Part 2 to function primarily to tie up the loose ends of Part 1 and to tell us whether Eric’s hidden inheritance from Walter will ever be discovered.

The one point on which the play and the novel are most as variance is in portraying the Schlegel sisters as male lovers. Margaret and Helen Schlegel in the novel are much more similar than Eric and Toby, their equivalents in the play. Eric is very much like Margaret in having grown up in a highly cultured household and in being responsible, intellectual and empathetic. Forster’s Helen may be more inflexible and rash than Margaret, but López’s Toby is nearly Eric’s opposite in being irresponsible, emotional and egocentric. He did not grow up with culture as did Helen. Rather, Eric is the one who educates him, teaching Toby all he loves about music, literature and art.

Just as Helen has an affair with Leonard Bast, the poorest character in the novel, so Toby has an affair with Leo, a rent boy, the poorest character in the play. The outcome of this affair differs radically from that of Helen and Leonard in the novel and the journey López has planned for Toby is completely unlike Helen’s in the novel.

In both the novel and the play the country house, whether Howards End or Walter’s unnamed house, is a place of healing and reconciliation. Both Forster and López are concerned with preserving community and with finding the ties that connect people despite wealth and class. López’s particular concern is that the younger generation of gay men, as represented by the twink couple both named Jason, is in danger of losing their history. In 2015 gay men take gay marriage as a given, not something that had to be fought for. In 2015 a diagnosis of AIDS is no longer the death sentence it was in the 1980s. In 2015 gay men use social networking apps to meet up and do not need communal places like gay bars or bathhouses or even gay villages.

What López communicates especially through Eric and Walter is the worry that the younger generation has become oblivious to what the older generation has suffered both throughdiscriminatory legislation, and through the plague of AIDS which revealed the frightening amount of hatred the heterosexual majority had for the homosexual minority.

When The Inheritance premiered critics could not avoid calling it the next Angels in America (1991). Both two-part plays were written by out gay men who viewed American history and the AIDS crisis from a gay point of view. Yet Tony Kushner’s Angels places American history in a cosmic context and is far more daring in its imagery and structure. Matthew López’s The Inheritance is focussed on reflecting a very specific time, namely 2025-18, and is filled with contemporary pop culture references that will eventually become dated. Its strategies of metatheatricality date from the first half of the 20th century – like characters who are aware they are characters and characters arguing with their authors (Pirandello) or narration, self-narration and group narration in drama (Brecht). The coarse language, one nude scene and mimed sex scenes give the play a sheen of modernity. But take that away and the play just happens to be a truly outstanding stage adaptation of a famous Edwardian novel.

The great virtue of The Inheritance is that it is composed of a potent sequence of compelling, beautifully written scenes. The work requires actors with the physical and mental stamina to play long, complex, emotionally demanding roles. Canadian Stage has found an ideal cast and under Brendan Healy’s insightful direction they deliver deeply involving performances.

It is wonderful to see the three lead actors – Qasim Khan, Antoine Yared and Stephen Jackman-Torkoff – give their best-ever performances. None of them has had a role so great or been in a play of such particular importance. All three magnificently rise to the play’s challenges.

For Qasim Khan, Eric is a star-making role. Kahn and his character hold the play together. Khan perfectly conveys all sides of Eric’s personality from loving partner to furious partner, from empathy with those in pain to disdain for those who mock. What Khan captures most beautifully are feelings of awe, joy and comradeship. When Khan’s Eric experiences these feelings he generates a warmth that fills the entire stage.

Antoine Yared has never had a role a complex as that of Toby. Toby has a seriously conflicted personality. Like many people who move to New York City, Toby has created a new persona and thinks he has left his unhappy past life behind. Yet, as the play emphasizes it’s as dangerous for a whole generation to leave the past behind as it is for an individual. Toby’s knowledge of who he was keeps interfering with the new person he wants to be. Yared captures this internal conflict that often manifests itself as manic energy and sudden anger. Yard suggests that Toby is constantly prey to emotions that threaten to overwhelm him so that he turns to sex, drugs and alcohol to subdue them. Toby begins a downward spiral in Part 1 and Yared plays Toby so vividly that we groan with every wrong choice the character makes.

Up to now Stephen Jackman-Torkoff has always seemed to be playing himself in every play he’s been in. No so here. In a virtuoso turns he plays two completely opposite characters and has submerged himself into both. As Adam, the young man who stars in Toby’s play, Jackman-Torkoff shows us a socially awkward person rise in confidence until he comes to recognize his own worth. As Leo, the rent boy Toby hires and later befriends, Jackman-Torkoff shows us a frightened, hopeless person who sees too clearly that he is on the verge of an abyss and wonders how long it will be before he falls. In a brilliant scene, Jackman-Torkoff plays both characters interacting – Leo overcome with pain and misery, Adam secure enough to feel empathy and offer comfort.

The production finds three of Canada’s most beloved actors playing members of the older generation. Daniel MacIvor plays both Morgan and Walter. As Morgen, MacIvor adopts a posh British accent and uses carefully chosen pauses and tones of voice to convey a sense of bemused irony in his position as a spirit guiding the creation of a new play. As Walter, he chooses a neutral accent to play a man who has come to terms with what has been both good and bad in life and is overjoyed to find a young man like Eric, who seems authentically interested in his experiences. López gives Walter an exquisitely written five-page-long monologue in which Walter describes in detail how he met and feel in love with Henry and what later happened to cause the recent coolness between them. MacIvor, no stranger to monologues, wonderfully communicates the mixture of past happiness tinged with present sadness that sums up Walter’s present life. As MacIvor plays them, Morgan and Walter are such rich, sympathetic characters that we feel a real loss when they both disappear.

Jim Mezon is exactly the right actor to Henry. There are many reasons why we should dislike Henry – his treatment of Walter, his unapologetic capitalism, his loyalty to the Republican party, his apparent disdain for liberalism. Yet, Mezon remarkably is able to suggest that Henry has deliberately constructed a wall around himself to protect his inner, emotional self from its fear of death and its fear of feeling too much love. Most of this Mezon does, masterful actor that he is, by bringing out a subtext that contrasts with the actual words he speaks.

Louise Pitre plays Margaret Avery, who is the equivalent of the Mrs. Avery in Forster’s novel who takes care of Howards End when no one is there. Pitre is the only woman in the cast and appears only at the end of Part 2. Why López has decided to include only one woman in his massive play and in only one scene is a mystery. After all, Tony Kushner made the young woman Harper Pitt into one the main characters in Angels in America, and it would be false to think that gay men do not have female friends.

Whatever the reason, the appearance of Margaret near the end suddenly provides an new voice and a new perspective on the themes of connection between people and generations that López has developed for the previous six hours. López basically makes Margaret into the genius or tutelary spirit of Walter’s house and its symbolic status as a place of healing. Pitre gracefully delivers the long monologue López gives Margaret describing how she raised and lost her only son and how she has come to accept his loss and of all those who died before him at Walter’s house.

Margaret’s speech prepares us for the play’s conclusion which is all about acceptance and reconciliation after tragedy whether a personal tragedy or a national tragedy. The ending is about the healing of bodies and the healing of rifts between individuals and between generations.

The two parts of The Inheritance are each longer than three hours, but the time flies by because López involves us so deeply in the characters and in their stories. The ending of Part 1 is sublimely moving. The ending of Part 2 brings peace after all the emotional turbulence we and the characters have experienced. Like Howards End, the play may be about a specific group of people living at a specific time and place, but its yearning to create a world where all people can live in harmony is universal.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Antoine Yared as Toby, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff as Leo, Louise Pitre as Margaret and Qasim Khan as Eric; Daniel MacIvor, Hollywood Jade, Landon Nesbitt, Aldrin Bundoc, Qasim Khan, Salvatore Antonio, Breton Lalama, Gregory Prest and Ben Page; Qasim Khan as Eric with Stephen Jackman-Torkoff as Leo; Antoine Yared as Toby and Stephen Jackman-Torkoff as Adam; Antoine Yared as Toby, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff as Adam, Qasim Khan as Eric, Daniel MaIvor as Morgan with Lnadon Nesbitt as Young Man 4. © 2024 Dahlia Katz.

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