In ‘The Inheritance,’ one masterpiece meets another

Eddie Shields and Dennis Trainor, Jr. in SpeakEasy Stage’s The Inheritance. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

BOSTON – A masterpiece written onto a masterpiece.

Playwright Matthew López has used an acclaimed century-old work as a template and a canvas on which to paint his own sprawling, vital work about a group of young, gay New Yorkers towards the end of the Obama Administration.

SpeakEasy Stage Company is presenting the Tony Award-winning play “The Inheritance” in two parts through June 11 in the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts

The work in question is E.M. Forster’s “Howards End,” the 1910 novel centered  on social conventions, codes of conduct and relationships in turn-of-the-century England. The novel brings together the Wilcoxes, rich capitalists with a fortune made in the colonies; the half-German Schlegel siblings (Margaret, Helen, and Tibby), and the Basts, an impoverished young couple from a lower-class background, into an Edwardian melodrama.

The idealistic, intelligent Schlegel sisters seek to help the struggling Basts and to rid the Wilcoxes of some of their deep-seated social and economic prejudices.

López takes Forster’s characters and brings them into the 21st Century, changes sexes of some, retains some names and has his characters – even those of different generations — intersect and connect with each other in deep-seated relationships.

Even the forlorn Leo Bast of Howard’s End is represented by two characters named Adam, an actor who uses others to get his way, and, of course, Leo, a forlorn sex worker, performed by the same actor. In Part I, it was Mishka Yarovoy; in a later performance of Part II, they were played by Luke Sabracos.

Forster is injected forcibly into the work early on, Indeed, the character of Morgan (a marvelous Mark H. Dold)  — Morgan was Forster’s middle name – is front and center.

He serves as a mentor or cheerleader of sorts, urging those assembled young, gay well-educated men  — all friends and acquaintances of Eric Glass (Eddie Shields) – to listen anew to Forster’s advisory as laid out in “Howard’s End”: “Only Connect.” They are words that  will reverberate and resound throughout the play.

Eddie Shields in “The Inheritance.” Photo: Nile Scott Studios.

But Morgan is also insistent that the young men gathered around the stage tell their own story, and the character of Leo becomes the vehicle for that. And, of course, at the heart of the story are the relationships

Shields’ superb portrayal of Eric Glass is a theatrical tour de force of the highest order, and his performance is both the emotional and artistic center of the play. He also happens to be the moral compass around which the other characters orbit. and the decisions he makes will have profound, long-lasting effects.

Glass is in a long-running relationship with Toby Darling, deftly portrayed by Jared Reinfeldt in a soul-baring, heartfelt performance. He is a dashing, handsome novelist, and they live together in upper-class luxury in a rent-controlled apartment Eric inherited from his grandmother in a fashionable New York City neighborhood.

Their neighbors include an older gay couple, Henry Wilcox (Dennis Trainor, Jr.), a self-assured tycoon, and Walter Poole (Dold again), who have been together for decades.

And while Glass and Toby are deeply in love, we know almost from the first moments — when we learn Toby has vomited on Meryl Streep

in Wilcox’s Long Island beach home — that Toby’s journey will not be a happy one. The product of a desperately unhappy childhood in Alabama, he will squander his talent in a flood of booze, drugs and bad decisions. His adaptation of his novel “Loved Boy” – a supposedly autobiographical work — will make a successful transition to the Broadway stage but it will only bring him more despair.

At one point Toby will confront Morgan/Forster about Forster’s decision to wait until after his death in 1970 to release his only gay-themed novel, “Maurice,” written in 1913.  “Just imagine what would have happened if you had published a gay novel in your lifetime! You might have toppled mountains. You might even have saved lives.”

They are words that will eventually prove prophetic.

Henry also happens to own a property in upstate New York, three hours from the city, which will become central to the story, which often focuses on the importance of property, both in the theme of someplace to call home and, eventually, as a vehicle to move mountains.

In the midst of storytelling, López doesn’t mind making sudden off-ramps to have his characters discuss what is camp, or gay cultural icons, an abrupt change in mood which can be welcome relief after the intensity of some scenes.

“The Inheritance” is very much a spiritual work – perhaps not in an overtly religious way, but in a way that will become apparent in visits to the upstate property, which Walter will eventually take over and turn into a refuge for those dying of AIDS, a decision that will drive a wedge between he and Henry.

The estimable Paula Plum, an always-welcome presence, is the play’s sole female performer and also part of that spiritual bent. She appears late in Part II as the caretaker of Walter’s estate who powerfully tells the tragic tale of a gay son who left home for NYC in the 1980s only to meet his end a few years later and take his dying breaths in an upstairs bedroom of Walter’s estate.

Eric, meanwhile, will become ever more integrated with the Wilcoxes, first finding solace and comfort with Walter’s friendship and then, after distancing himself from Toby after a meltdown, being vigorously pursued by Henry, who can provide safety and security, even if it comes at a high cost.

SpeakEasy Stage invested wisely in making sure that its production of López’s work is being given its best possible telling.

Obviously, it starts with Speakeasy Artistic Director Paul Daigneault’s masterful direction of a work that, while stretching out over more than six hours in two parts, never seems overlong. It’s also a tribute to his casting, a blending of experience and young talent bursting at the seams with energy.

Christina Todesco’s minimalist set includes a rectangular raised platform around which cast members gather to either watch or participate in the story; there is a video display of a cherry tree at the rear of the set.

Karen Perlow’s effective lighting often signals mood changes or invokes the beauty of the grounds of the upstate property.

Dewey Dellay’s original musical compositions provide engaging interludes between the many scenes.

“The Inheritance” is being presented in repertory, with both Part I and Part II available to be viewed on selected dates.

It is a master work that will push and pull you as it asks what gay men growing up today owe to those who stood up at the Stonewall Inn, to those who both lived and died in the AIDS era, and how can we connect the past and the present and tell the story.

The SpeakEasy Stage Company production of “The Inheritance.” Written by Matthew López. Directed by Paul Daigneault. In the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts through June 11.

Mark H. Dold (seated center), Eddie Shields (standiing center), and members of the cast of SpeakEasy Stage’s The Inheritance. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.