Review: Zach Theatre's The Inheritance, Part 1

Epic in length and ambition, this portrait of gay life in the 21st century is stunning

(l-r) Nicolas Garza as Jason No. 2, Martavius Parrish as Jason No. 1, Peter Frechette as Walter Poole, Christopher Joel Onken as Eric Glass, Kriston Woodreaux as Tristan, and Nash Ferguson as Jasper in Zach Theatre's The Inheritance, Part 1 (photo by Suzanne Cordeiro)

The Inheritance, Part 1 is stunning. It’s the kind of stunning that leaves you so dazed by Matthew Lopez’s superbly crafted script, director Dave Steakley’s spellbinding production, and the stellar performances turned in by the entire ensemble that it requires a conscious act of determination to stop staring and start applauding at the end of the show. It’s the kind of stunning that, even after three-plus hours of watching, you are looking forward to watching for another three-plus hours when The Inheritance, Part 2 opens on Sept. 14.

Jonathan Larson’s Rent, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, and Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart put a human face on and gave voice to the horrors of the 1980s/1990s AIDS epidemic. Lopez’s 2020 Tony Award-winning portrait of gay life in the 21st century reflects a comparatively gilded era of uncloseted sexual identity, marriage equality, wider cultural representation, and treatable HIV. At issue – and this is the central premise of this play – is whether today’s generation of young gay men understand or will forget what so much progress cost their forebears. “If we can’t have a conversation about our past,” says sincere and intense Eric Glass (an absolutely riveting Christopher Joel Onken), the better half of the thirtysomething couple around which this play revolves, “then what will be our future?”

The Inheritance is that conversation. To help tell the story about the past and facilitate the telling of this generation’s own story, Lopez infuses this work with magical realism, where fantastical elements seamlessly surface in the world of this play as if they were normative. Most characters are barefoot, a subtle indicator of their being immersed in this otherworldliness and a free pass to engage in storytelling removed from theatre’s more traditional tropes.

Designers Josafath Reynoso (scenic) and Austin Brown (lighting) create a physical world composed of a bare, raised slate platform, which becomes different locations with the introduction of a rug, some furniture, and adjusted illumination. There’s also a slate wall upstage on which chalk drawings reveal simple images emblematic of the scene being played. Ensemble members take on multiple roles without any effort at concealment, but mostly they form a Greek chorus of friends who pop in and out of scenes to offer commentary, hand-deliver props, and provide hard-bodied, Armani Exchange model eye candy (costume design by Aaron Kubacak). It’s all magical realism. And good genes.

This creative convention allows for the casual materialization of long-dead author E.M. Forster (a wonderfully quirky, enigmatic Peter Frechette, who also plays Walter Poole, an older and unassuming friend of Eric’s, with equal aplomb). Forster’s 1910 novel Howards End – which explored the rigid social structure and codes of conduct in Edwardian England at a moral crossroads – provides the operational foundation for this play and the inspiration for many of its featured characters. Reading this novel will most certainly add another layer of appreciation for this play but, as is the case with listening to Puccini’s 1896 opera La Bohème before seeing Rent, it is by no means a necessity.

Forster serves as a spirit guide for these modern-day New Yorkers and, as a writer himself, humorously cleans up and rewrites some of Lopez’s dialogue, particularly that spoken by Eric’s roguish, self-centered, and less eloquent other half, Toby (an abundantly charming Jake Roberson). In Forster’s presence, other characters in the play often refer to themselves in the third person, as if they were characters in a play, and narrate their own actions, which is intriguing. In Forster’s absence, astute political and cultural debates weave their way through more amusing conversations about, say, the enduring value of camp as a part of the gay sensibility.

All this adds up to a marvelously structured narrative that includes a few lengthy, engrossing monologues – like the one delivered by the young and economically privileged Adam (a mesmerizing Brenden Kyle MacDonald) about an evening of transcendent, dangerous sex in a gay bathhouse in Prague, presented with elation that morphs into haunting ambivalence. Also noteworthy and equally enthralling is Steakley’s and movement director Cassie Abate’s handling of an explicit and highly erotic onstage sexual encounter between Eric and Toby that consists of noncontact, metaphorical choreography.

It is easy to see why this play was a Tony-worthy enterprise. It is brilliant. But in this performance, the good folks at Zach Theatre have elevated The Inheritance, Part 1 to something truly astonishing.

Zach Theatre's The Inheritance, Part 1
The Topfer, 1421 W. Riverside, 512/476-0541,
Through Sept. 4

Time: 3 hrs., 15 mins.
The Inheritance, Part 2 opens Sept. 14

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Zach Theatre, The Inheritance, Part 1, The Inheritance, Nicolas Garza, Martavius Parrish, Peter Frechette, Christopher Joel Onken, Kriston Woodreaux, Nash Ferguson, Matthew Lopez, Dave Steakley, Josafath Reynoso, Austin Brown, Aaron Kubacak, Jake Roberson, Brenden Kyle MacDonald, Cassie Abate

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