Matthew Lopez’s two-part play about contemporary gay life in New York, The Inheritance, was a runaway critical and popular hit when it premiered in London last year. Audiences compared the experience of watching both parts of the must-see event on a single day as the theatrical equivalent of binge-watching a compelling series on Netflix.
Running over six hours in total, The Inheritance comes to New York this fall and Broadway audiences too will have the opportunity to see both parts of the award-winning epic back-to-back at marathon performances, which will be presented three times every week.
“The beautiful thing that happens when watching The Inheritance in its entirety is, by the end of the experience, people wind up hugging perfect strangers,” reports producer Tom Kirdahy, who shepherded the play through its two previous incarnations in London, at the Young Vic Theatre and in the West End with co-producers Sonia Friedman and Hunter Arnold. “What we have learned,” he continues, “is that the entire audience feels as though they have known each other and the characters in the play their whole lives. The sense of oneness that happens while watching is, really, nothing short of magical.”
Of course, the epic-length multi-part play isn’t new to Broadway. The 1981 Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby was probably the first and the longest — clocking at eight and a half hours — such production on Broadway. (Longer play cycles ran at Off-Broadway art venues even prior to that.) At that time, nearly four decades ago, the prospect of spending an entire day in the theatre was new for Broadway audiences. Nickleby became the event of the season; special arrangements were made to provide dinner options for ticket buyers on marathon days. With recent productions like Wolf Hall, the 2018 revival of Angels in America, and the currently running Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, we are now more used to the idea of the two-part theatrical epic.
Speaking about The Inheritance, Lopez says, “It wasn’t really until I started to outline the play that I realized that I was telling a larger story than I had anticipated.” Inspired by E.M. Forster’s Howards End, the playwright sought to re-envision the classic novel by tracking the lives of three generations of gay men living in New York City. Deciding to make the play a two-parter was very liberating. “I suddenly had so much more time to tell my story,” Lopez says. “It allowed me to really dig deep into character and into ideas. There are parts of the play where the plot chugs like a madman, and then there are other parts where we just stop the plot altogether and sit in a scene of character, or emotion, or ideas.”
The result proved highly addictive — catnip for London theatergoers. “We wanted to create a sensation of not ever wanting it to end,” Lopez continues, adding that he structured each act of the play so that it lasted no longer than an hour. “So it does take on the feel of a Netflix show, especially if you see it all in one day. I remember very distinctly someone at the Young Vic referring to each act as an episode rather than an act. And I went, ‘Oh, this is the new world we have arrived in!’”
Producer Kirdahy suggests that today’s audiences, accustomed to consuming multiple episodes of streaming television in one sitting, are well primed for taking in a two-part play on a single day. “I think audiences are better trained for the experience than they were with Nicholas Nickleby,” he says, adding that the production team is working with local restaurants to accommodate the schedule of the show. “We want people to feed themselves properly and be prepared for a very rich experience. What they are going to get is an epic day in the theatre, one they will remember for the rest of their lives.” Kirdahy continues, “The hardest and the most exhilarating part is for the actors themselves. The cast knows that they have to eat the right things the night before, to sleep properly, and to take care of their bodies and minds. It is really like running a marathon.”
London cast member Andrew Burnap got used to playing both parts of The Inheritance on the same day. “On a practical level, it’s highly exhausting,” he says. “It’s a very physical play, a very emotional play, and a very funny play. You just have to give yourself over to it.” But the full-day commitment does bring its own rewards. “That day becomes your canvas, really,” he explains. “It is sort of like a larger playground, if you will, for an actor; it gives you room for play. You know that you have nearly seven hours of face time with this audience and you can let them in on the journey. And I think you also start to feel that you have a very special bond with them that day.”
It’s telling that the most quoted phrase from Howards End is “Only connect!” given the cast and creative team of The Inheritance are able to make a palpable connection with the audience. “I think that by the end of the experience, you have fallen so in love with these characters and you are so invested in their lives – even the most damaged of the characters — that you are rooting for them,” says Kirdahy. “Matthew Lopez has written a sexy, funny, intellectually rigorous, and emotionally satisfying play. At the end of the two parts, I think there’s a deeply human need to connect with the characters on the stage and with the audience. And that is exhilarating.”