Is This the Most Important Play About Gay Life Since “Angels In America”?
Playwright Matthew Lopez introduces a charged and harrowing excerpt from his Evening Standard Award–winning play, “The Inheritance.”
Sam Levine and Adam Burlap in the West End production of The Inheritance. Photograph by Marc Brenner.
The Inheritance was born of multiple impulses: the desire to examine my own personal history; the need to understand my generation’s place in the continuum of LGBTQ history; and the hope of fostering a dialogue between gay men of multiple generations about the legacy of AIDS and its impact on our lives.
What I hadn’t set out to do was depict gay male sexuality with a frankness that I had never approached as a writer and that I had rarely seen as an audience member. But I realized, as I was writing the play, that the lives of gay men cannot be honestly told without exploring how they have sex.
Gay men were allowed to die of AIDS in such unconscionable numbers expressly because the virus forced the heterosexual world to think about the means by which they contracted it. As I write for one of the few heterosexual characters to realize: “[The epidemic] required that we look at gay men and accept their nature, accept their affection and their sexual desire for one another as equal to our own. Most Americans could not do that.”
I knew that in order to ask an audience to fully understand these men, I needed them to under-stand how and why and with what joy, what trepidation, and with what ecstasy they fucked.
This scene is between Toby Darling, a budding playwright, and Adam McDowell, a young actor who is playing the lead in Toby’s first play. Toby’s attraction to Adam has already been established, but it is complicated by the fact that Toby has a longtime boyfriend, Eric. And while Toby and Eric enjoy an open, sexually fluid relationship, Toby instinctually understands that Adam, who has adopted Eric as an honorary older brother, is strictly off-limits.
Incidentally, the “Morgan” in this scene is E.M. Forster. The play is inspired by Howards End, but this scene is most decidedly not to be found in the novel.
ACT II, SCENE I: ADAM’S APARTMENT IN CHICAGO
ADAM: Fuck, I’m still rolling.
TOBY: You can’t still be rolling.
ADAM: Your eyes are so beautiful.
TOBY: Okay, you’re still rolling.
ADAM: I love you, Toby.
TOBY: That’s my cue to go.
ADAM: No, let’s stay up and talk.
TOBY: It’s 4:30 in the morning.
Adam goes into the bathroom.
TOBY: You’re not about to throw up, are you?
ADAM: I think I have to pee.
The shower starts offstage.
TOBY: Are you taking a shower?
ADAM [offstage]: What?
TOBY: Are you taking a shower?
ADAM [offstage]: I’m going to take a quick shower.
TOBY: I think it’s sweet that you brought a framed photo of you and your parents.
ADAM [offstage]: What?
TOBY: Can you even hear me right now?
ADAM [offstage]: What?
TOBY: Then I’ll only say this once: I think you’re really amazing.
ADAM [offstage]: I can’t hear a word you’re saying, Toby.
TOBY: Good. Watching you rehearse these last few weeks, to see Elan come to life in that room, to watch you become him...you’re so very good in this play, Adam...and in the few more moments that I can say these things, I just want you to know that you amaze me, Adam. And I really wanna fuck you right now.
The shower stops. Adam enters naked, casually drying himself off with a towel.
ADAM: I wanna ask you something.
ADAM: How am I doing? In the part, I mean. As Elan.
TOBY: It’s early days.
ADAM: I can’t get a firm grip on him at times, you know what I mean?
TOBY: You’re still figuring him out.
ADAM: I mean, he’s kind of a dick, you know? And I love that about him. But he can be a little cocky and manipulative.
ADAM: So...I dunno. I just don’t want the audience not to like me.
TOBY: Trust me, Adam. The audience is going to like you. I wouldn’t overthink it. Just remember he ain’t no virgin.
ADAM: You don’t think I’m a virgin, do you?
TOBY: God, I hope you’re not.
ADAM: Far from it.
TOBY: Oh “far,” huh? How far, exactly?
ADAM: You mean in years or in...?
TOBY: Cocks. How far from virginity are you in erect penises? If you lined them up end to end, how far to the moon could you get?
ADAM: Probably not as far as you. I guess you’ve had a lot of sex in your life, huh?
TOBY: I’m Cape fuckin’ Canaveral, baby.
ADAM: You’re probably more like Elan in that regard than I am.
TOBY: Here’s what I’ll say: If Elan stepped out of the shower and stood before me completely naked, he wouldn’t then pussyfoot around about what he wanted, he’d just come right out and say it. That, I think, is the main difference between you and the character that I’ve written. I should get to bed.
A moment, then Adam puts on underwear.
TOBY: We need to take you shopping for better underwear.
ADAM: What’s wrong with my underwear?
TOBY: It looks like you bought it at Costco.
ADAM: But...I did.
TOBY: Gay men shouldn’t shop at Costco until they’re at least 40 and own land. What if you’d hooked up tonight? You really want a guy seeing you in that Fruit of the Loom banality you’re wearing right now?
ADAM: Why do you always pick on me?
TOBY: [Mocking mimicking] “Why do you always pick on me?” I tease you, there’s a difference.
ADAM: Why can’t you just be nice to me?
TOBY: I am nice to you.
ADAM: You’re always making fun of how rich and spoiled I am. Sometimes I think you don’t like me.
TOBY: Oh, come on, Adam. Don’t be such a baby.
ADAM: I’m not a baby. Stop calling me that.
TOBY: You have to know that you’ve lived a pretty protected life.
ADAM: Is that my fault?
TOBY: No, not at all. But I hope you realize it’s, like, a one-in-a-million life you’re living.
ADAM: I know I’m very fortunate.
TOBY: I’m hard on you because someone needs to be. You can’t expect the world to coddle you the way mommy does. You can’t expect to get what you want just because you want it. You can’t coast through life without some kind of adversity.
ADAM: You know I was adopted, right?
TOBY: Oh, shut up, you were not.
TOBY: Were you?
ADAM: I was born in Arkansas. My mother was 16. She left me at the hospital. My parents adopted me when I was 2 weeks old.
TOBY: Adam, I’m sorry. It’s a one-in-a-BILLION life you’re living.
Adam shoves Toby.
ADAM: Fuck you, Toby.
TOBY: That’s the spirit.
Adam shoves Toby again.
ADAM: Why can’t you encourage me?
TOBY: Because you get enough of that in your life.
ADAM: But I want it from you.
TOBY: It bothers me when privileged people pretend that they know what it’s like to struggle or be scared to death.
Toby releases Adam.
TOBY: Good night, Adam.
Toby moves to the door.
ADAM: I once got fucked in a bathhouse in Prague.
TOBY: You did not.
ADAM: Okay then, I didn’t.
MORGAN: Did you?
TOBY: Oh, I see: Is this your way of proving to me that you’re not a virgin? I didn’t really think that you were.
ADAM: I went to Prague over Christmas break my senior year. My boyfriend and I had just broken up, I felt a little lost and heartbroken and so I booked a flight and went.
TOBY: And what, pray tell, did you do while mending your broken, widdle heart in Prague?
ADAM: I went to museums. I drank in cafés and smoked way too many cigarettes. Then one night I worked up the courage to go to a bathhouse, just to see what it was like.
TOBY: What was it like?
ADAM: It was hot.
TOBY: Oh, come on. If you’re going to tell a writer about a visit to a Czech bathhouse, you should at least do him the courtesy of using better adjectives.
ADAM: My heart pounds in my chest as I ride the metro there from my hotel. My hands tremble with fear as I present my ID at the door.
TOBY: Get to the good stuff. If there isn’t a dick in your mouth in the next minute, I’m leaving.
ADAM: I found a hot tub that’s empty and I get in.
TOBY: Okay, so you’re in the tub...
ADAM: And this one guy comes over and gets into the tub with me. He reaches down and grabs my dick. I let him stroke me off for a while but I’m not really into it so I get up and leave.
TOBY: The bathhouse?
ADAM: No, just the room. I go downstairs into this dark, warm, tiled room. It’s basically a long hallway with stalls on either side. The first thing I notice is the sound of moaning. I start to walk down the corridor, passing each stall. Some are empty. Some have one or a couple of guys jerking off or sucking each other off. I remove my towel and walk down the corridor, looking into each of the stalls as I go.
TOBY: Were you hard?
ADAM: The hardest.
TOBY: Did anybody notice you?
ADAM: Some look up as I pass.
TOBY: Where did you go then?
ADAM: I get to this one stall and I find these two guys fucking. I stand there and watch. I’d never seen two people having sex before outside of porn. They both smile and invite me over.
TOBY: And what happened?
ADAM: The guy getting fucked starts sucking me off.
TOBY: Wow. Really?
ADAM: Then the guy who was fucking him pulls out and joins him.
TOBY: They’re both sucking you off?
ADAM: Yeah, back and forth. Both mouths on me at once. Their hands are all over me. I look up and see three other guys in the entryway, watching.
TOBY: What did you do?
ADAM: I invite them over.
TOBY: You did not.
ADAM: They start feeling my body. They take turns sucking me off. More guys start to show up.
TOBY: How many?
ADAM: Eventually? Maybe 15, 20?
TOBY: You’re making this up.
ADAM: Am I?TOBY: Are you? Go on.
ADAM: They’re all sucking me off, rubbing my body, eating me out, kissing me all over. They’re all exploring me, feeling me. Worshipping me.
TOBY: How did that feel?
ADAM: I felt like the most desirable person in the world. I felt like a God. Then there’s this one guy. So hot, all muscle. He whispers something into my ear. I just smile and nod. Then before I knew what was happening, he slides inside me and starts to fuck me.
TOBY: Stop it. Go on.
ADAM: Everyone just stands by and watches while this really hot guy fucks me. So I decide to put on a show for them.
ADAM: I moan, I arch my back.
TOBY: God, I can only imagine what that looked like.
ADAM: Can you?
TOBY: I’m picturing it right now.
ADAM: How’s it look?
TOBY: Really fucking good.
ADAM: Eventually another guy wants to take a turn.
TOBY: Did you let him?
ADAM: Yeah. So now this other guy and I are fucking. Then another guy takes a turn, then another. Eventually I lose count.
TOBY: Jesus, Adam.
ADAM: Meanwhile, everyone is touching me. Thirty hands, 15 mouths on my body. It wasn’t even me in that moment, it was this other version of me. I remember thinking to myself: “This is what it feels to truly be alive.” I start to get close. I stand up on a bench. By now I’m completely covered in sweat and lube and spit. I start to jack myself closer to orgasm. All eyes are on me. Wanting me, encouraging me, demanding of me that I cum for them. And then finally, standing over them, my world contracts into a tight little ball and I release myself...I spray my cum all over them, like I’m anointing them. I’ve never cum so hard or so much in all my life. It was the closest I’ve ever been to genuine ecstasy.
Toby reaches for Adam. Adam lets him.
ADAM: Everyone starts to cum. It was beautiful to watch. I was euphoric. I felt like a cult leader. And I remember thinking: “I always want to feel like I do right now. This moment, this feeling, I want to live in this moment for the rest of my life.”
Toby continues to feel Adam.
ADAM: Slowly my euphoria started to fade and a thought starts to form, like Adam Lucas McDowell returning to this hot, sweaty body: None of those guys had been wearing condoms. And suddenly, I’m awoken from my dream to face the fact that I’d just barebacked with at least a dozen guys. I got down off the bench and made my way out of the stall. Everyone was grabbing at me, wanting me to stay. Suddenly their touches felt like violations.
Toby removes his hands from Adam’s body.
ADAM: I ran to the locker room and quickly dressed. I left with my clothes sticking to my body, still sweaty and covered in lube and spit and cum. I smelled so disgustingly. I ran to my hotel. When I got to my room, I took the hottest shower I could stand. I cleaned myself and discovered I was bleeding. I could see it going down the drain. I got out of the shower and looked at my clothes. There was blood all over my underwear and inside my jeans.
TOBY: What did you do?
ADAM: I called my mom.
TOBY: You told your mother what you did???
ADAM: I just told her it was one guy. She called a friend of hers, a surgeon at Sloan Kettering. This surgeon called a friend of his in Prague, who wrote me a prescription for PEP. I flew home the next day and we went up to Vermont for Christmas. I got really sick on Christmas Day. It felt like the worst flu ever. My mother took me to the hospital where I got a rapid HIV test. It came back inconclusive. The doctor ordered blood work. But it was Christmas and I had to wait three days for the lab to re-open. Worst Christmas of my life. Three days later, my mom and I drove back to the hospital for the results. They found the virus in my blood. Trace amounts. Barely detectable. But still detectable. HIV positive.
TOBY: I had no idea.
ADAM: The doctor told me to keep taking the PEP treatment for the rest of the month. I went back to school and tried to distract myself with work. I would lay awake at night obsessively going over that night in my mind. Which one gave this to me? How could an experience that transcendent yield consequences so terrifying? Once the month was out, I went to the health center on campus. They did another round of tests. This time they came back negative across the board.
TOBY: Oh. So...what does that mean, exactly?
ADAM: It means I was exposed to the virus, I became temporarily HIV positive, and the PEP treatment worked. It means I came as close to the edge as possible and at the last second I was rescued. Kinda like what my parents did for me when I was 2 weeks old.
ADAM: Don’t ever tell me that I don’t know what it’s like to be scared to death.
TOBY: Adam, I—
ADAM: It’s getting late.
TOBY: Adam, I—ADAM: I should get to bed.
ADAM: Night, Toby.
Toby silently stands, grabs his jacket and makes his way to the door.
TOBY: I’ll, um, I’ll see you tomorrow.
MORGAN: That night, Adam McDowell learned an important lesson. He had power. Far more than he ever imagined.
YOUNG MAN 1: He wondered what else he might be capable of.
END OF SCENE