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The Inheritance is a seven-hour, two part play that explores what it means to be a gay man with a generation of elders missing owing to AIDS.Dahlia Katz/Canadian Stage

  • Title: The Inheritance, Part 1 and Part 2
  • Written by: Matthew López
  • Director: Brendan Healy
  • Actors: Qasim Khan, Antoine Yared, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff and Daniel MacIvor
  • Company: Canadian Stage
  • Venue: Bluma Appel Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to April 14

Critic’s Pick

The Inheritance, a hearty piece of American drama mightily heralded in both London and New York, is now having its highly anticipated Canadian premiere in Toronto.

Don’t let the seven-hour length put you off this sweet and sometimes salty two-part play exploring what it means to be a gay man in New York with a generation of elders missing owing to AIDS. It is easily devoured, and easily digested.

Canadian Stage artistic director Brendan Healy’s poignant production marks his belated directorial debut at the 868-seat Bluma Appel Theatre – and he’s delivered a casually confident staging that fills the full spread of its stage powerfully without any show-off tricks.

Every actor in the cast of 13 he has assembled is performing at the highest level I’ve personally seen from each and all are in sync in terms of style. Under Healy’s direction, this company of actors assembled for only a few weeks miraculously seems like it could be the celebrated ensemble of Canada’s National Queer Theatre.

Though special notice does go to Antoine Yared, a long-time Stratford Festival company member, who is giving the heartbreaking performance of his career as an irresistible, perhaps irredeemable, artist who breaks more than the hearts of the men he falls in love with.

The Inheritance, which is written by American playwright Matthew López, is a riff on E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End. That book’s famous questing credo – “only connect” – animates the young and no-longer-that-young men in the play in their search for connection to each other and a mostly disappeared older generation who might have been friends, mentors or lovers, in our era where gay community as such has been ground down by Grindr, swallowed up by a larger queer culture or absorbed into the mainstream.

At the centre of the story are Eric Glass (Qasim Khan), a political organizer who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in a rent-controlled apartment passed down by his grandmother, and his partner, Toby Darling (Yared), a prickly writer hard at work adapting his not-well-known novel into a play.

A chance mix-up of bags at the Strand bookstore brings a handsome, young actor named Adam (Stephen Jackman-Torkoff) into the couple’s lives – and into their brunch circle.

Eric and Toby are the nucleus of a clique of men, middle class only by Manhattan standards, who frequent the Whitney and Film Forum and occasionally broaden their horizons by sneaking just across the East River to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. They immerse themselves constantly in culture and yet can seem very cloistered; they’re all on board for Hillary Clinton in the lead-up to the 2016 election and don’t see what’s coming at all.

As Trump looms, Toby goes off to Chicago to work on the premiere of his play with Adam, and a lonely Eric befriends an older man named Walter (Daniel MacIvor), the sweet, sad and guarded partner of a billionaire named Henry Wilcox (Jim Mezon).

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The show, which is written by American playwright Matthew López, is a riff on E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End. Those who know the novel well will find familiar names and characters and symbols, but as far as adaptations go, the two works of art only just connect.Dahlia Katz/Canadian Stage

Walter eventually opens up and, in a monologue that MacIvor makes as eerily ethereal as any of his celebrated solo shows, tells Eric about his plague years in the 1980s and early 90s – and how a house he owns in upstate New York came to be a hospice for friends and then strangers dying of AIDS.

This house looms large behind the action of the whole play, conjured by brick and boarded-up windows in Michael Gianfrancesco’s haunting of a set. In part two of the play, it reveals new layers and levels with the help of designer Kimberly Purtell’s longing-filled lighting.

While Eric searches for a sense of purpose in life as strong as the one Walter once had (Khan is an actor capable of conveying moral seriousness like no other), Toby grapples with the consequences, per the curse, of his artistic wishes actually coming true – and eventually befriends another young man named Leo who comes from completely different circumstances than Toby.

The double casting of Adam and Leo with Jackman-Torkoff, who is lovely in demonstrating the subtle shades between the two characters in their vulnerable enthusiasms, brings a Dickensian flavour to a show otherwise infused with the spirit of Forster and that gay (though closeted during his lifetime) English author’s humanism and muted hopefulness.

Those who know Howards End well will find familiar names and characters and symbols in The Inheritance, but as far as adaptations go, the two works of art only just connect.

Indeed, López’s play is much stranger than simply fiction on stage: It is a brand-new play written as if it were an adaptation of a novel inspired by another novel, one that is being written in real time by the actors; the characters pop in and out of the action to collaboratively narrate.

This means that a reviewer who writes that The Inheritance regularly tells rather than shows, or that it has long speeches that sound like passages from a book rather than monologues, is not criticizing, but simply observing. What is clear is that it works in what it is.

What The Inheritance is definitely not, despite what the ads say, is the second coming of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, so put those expectations out of your mind.

There’s nothing as daring in the dialectic or as theatrically imaginative here as what is in Kushner’s two-part gay-fantasia masterpiece – and while The Inheritance aims to be expansive in what it says about America, it can feel a bit stuck in a New York state of mind and romantically blinkered about the past (and the future).

What it does exceedingly well is tell a moving tale about inherited beauty and bitterness, trauma and tenacity, and provide a stomping ground for the incredible seven hours of strong stage acting that keeps you coming back intermission after intermission.

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