It’s rare for good fiction to come with a credo, rarer still for that credo to be worth remembering, but “Only connect,” the maxim at the heart of E. M. Forster’s masterpiece “,” lodged long ago in the cultural mainstream. It sounds like a political slogan, something to print on a T-shirt; its true meaning, though, is personal. The phrase occurs to Margaret Schlegel, Forster’s iconoclastic, oddball heroine, as she reflects on Henry Wilcox, the widowed businessman she has decided to marry. Wilcox is orderly and good-humored, but he has cultivated a worldly persona while neglecting his soul. Like Freud, Margaret can see that sex—or its repression—is at the root of the problem: Wilcox fears the dark, disruptive power that “bodily passion” might unleash. His self is split; her goal is to help him unify it.
2020欧洲杯体育投注网Forster, an orthodox Edwardian stylist among the modernist Bloomsbury wrecking crew, was a gay man who wrote five of his six novels before he allowed himself to pursue his own bodily passion, late in his thirties. One of those books, “,” told the story of two men in love, but Forster refused to let it be published until after his death, in 1970. With that in mind, you could read “Only connect” as the writer’s plaintive command to himself, tragically unfulfilled. Or, with the winds of modern morality at your back, you could lambaste Forster as a hypocrite and a coward who charged his characters with doing what he himself could not. That is what happens during a seething moment in “The Inheritance,” Matthew Lopez’s audacious and highly entertaining, if not entirely successful, play in two parts (directed by Stephen Daldry, at the Ethel Barrymore), which is based on “Howards End.” The accuser is Toby Darling (Andrew Burnap), a gay millennial writer; Forster, here called Morgan (Paul Hilton), the name used by his intimates, is present as a kind of spiritual godfather made flesh. “Just imagine what would have happened if you had published a gay novel in your lifetime!” Toby rages. “You might have toppled mountains. You might even have saved lives.” Morgan concedes the point but knows that Toby still needs his blessing. “Tell your story bravely,” he says, and is gone.
2020欧洲杯体育投注网Lopez, who is forty-two, was smart to see in Forster’s tale of two maverick sisters living in London at the start of the last century a template for the one he wants to tell about gay men in New York today. Though “Howards End” was published in 1910, it feels bracingly contemporary, in part because it deals so frankly with things that are still central to our lives: money, class, desire, and, as the ideal manifestation of all of the above, real estate. As “The Inheritance” begins, Toby is partying at a glamorous Hamptons house owned by an older couple, Henry Wilcox (John Benjamin Hickey) and Walter Poole (Hilton again, doing double duty in a wide-legged brown suit). Drunk on Martinis and on this glimpse of the high life, Toby leaves a series of ecstatic voice mails for his boyfriend, Eric Glass (Kyle Soller).
2020欧洲杯体育投注网Where Toby is impulsive and wild, nursing wounds from a past that he keeps secret, Eric is a stable, openhearted homebody. Employed at a friend’s social-justice-advocacy firm, he’s “terminally middle class,” with impeccable credentials—Westchester, Fieldston, Yale—and, miraculously, a roomy, rent-stabilized apartment on the Upper West Side, inherited from his beloved grandmother. Eric sentimentalizes family, and badly wants one of his own. During an athletic bout of sex, ingeniously staged by Daldry, using contact-improvisation-style moves as physical metaphor, Eric asks Toby to marry him. He has spent seven years supporting Toby, who has been writing an autobiographical novel, “Loved Boy,” and who is now trying to adapt it for the stage. To Eric, marriage seems a fait accompli, but when Toby senses the cage of intimacy lowering over him he bolts.
Readers of Forster’s novel will recognize, in the magnetic, vain Toby, some of the qualities of Helen, the reckless younger Schlegel sister, and, in Eric, those of the more grounded, cerebral Margaret. But though Lopez has drawn on Forster’s characters and plot, he isn’t afraid to break from his source—Leonard Bast, Forster’s pathetic, impoverished clerk, who gets enmeshed with the Schlegels, for instance, has been turned into two characters, a guileful actor and an abused sex worker (Samuel H. Levine takes on both roles)—and to have quippy, comic fun with it.
2020欧洲杯体育投注网Even Forster enjoys himself—at least, Lopez’s Morgan does. He presides over the first part of the play, guiding and encouraging the men onstage. His presence makes literal Lopez’s theme of cultural transmission and community, which is on display everywhere in the play, most clearly in its staging. Though the set is almost propless, the vast Barrymore stage essentially transformed into a black box, Daldry (with the help of Bob Crowley, the play’s designer) makes the space feel amply inhabited, grouping any off-duty members of his exuberant, winning cast of fourteen around the raised platform where the action takes place. Sitting cross-legged on cushions, they look like they are out to dinner at a Japanese restaurant, though they behave more like ballroom scenesters, hooting and snapping at what they see.
Sex, in Forster’s novel, is a twin force of death and life, but metaphorically so. There is nothing figurative about that binary for Lopez’s men, who belong to a generation that came after the one decimated by aids2020欧洲杯体育投注网. Still, with Truvada and other antiretrovirals, most of them take their health for granted; the past is, if not buried, at least contained. For Eric, however, it becomes increasingly real, especially after he grows close to Walter, who has moved into an apartment above his. Walter tells Eric that, in the eighties, at the height of the plague, he and Henry bought a house upstate where they could live together in protected isolation. Soon, though, Walter, repulsed by his own weakness, began, against Henry’s wishes, to invite sick friends to the house and to care for them as they died. Later, Eric visits the property (it is represented onstage by a doll’s house) and is surprised to hear someone call his name. What follows is a magical communion of the living and the dead, one of the most moving stage pictures I’ve seen: a special effect that relies not on technical wizardry but on the power of bodies sharing the same space for a brief, impossible moment in time.
All told, “The Inheritance” is a seven-hour affair—nine, if you see it in one day, with a break for dinner—and, although I recommend the first half without reservation, it may not be worth your while, or your dollars, to return for the second, in which Lopez lets his fleet, funny sensibility settle into something regrettably more teachy and preachy. There’s a pandering, stagy political debate and too many Big Messages wrapped in tearful professions. The tone turns saccharine and then, with a sex-work subplot that could be ripped from a nineteenth-century penny dreadful, maudlin. “I wasted so much time,” one character says, and another tells him, “You have so much left.” A monologue delivered by Margaret (Lois Smith), the formerly homophobic mother of one of Walter’s hospice patients and the sole woman to appear in the play, tugs so generically at the heartstrings that it had me rolling my eyes. Stripped of specificity, the speech feels like moral coddling, a self-congratulatory display of penance for the like-minded audience to eat up.
Forster was concerned with moral harm, and with the difficult necessity of trying to forgive it. For all his intelligence and sensitivity, Lopez dodges that particular challenge, letting the productive conflict between Eric’s idealism and Henry’s grizzled, cynical pragmatism dissipate, rather than resolve. To only connect with those who agree with you may be the motto we deserve these days, but it is not one that bodes well. Like Forster, who was determined to give the lovers in “Maurice” a happy ending, Lopez doles out contentment and redemption. How much more satisfying it would have been if he had asked his audience to consider what makes redemption matter: not just coming to the “right” point of view but having made the effort to look, to think, to struggle, and then to change. ♦