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'The Inheritance': A rich drama, at least, in the first half

Paul Hilton, left, and Kyle Soller star in

Paul Hilton, left, and Kyle Soller star in "The Inheritance," a drama about gay men and the AIDS crisis. Credit: Marc Brenner

WHAT “The Inheritance”

WHERE Ethel Barrymore Theater, 243 W. 47th St.

INFO $39-$199; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com

BOTTOM LINE Epic play about modern gay men lands emotional punches, but also feels indulgently padded.

“The Inheritance” is the kind of sprawling, thought-provoking saga you don’t see much on Broadway, so its ambition must be acknowledged. Over six and a half hours (presented in two parts that must be purchased separately), Matthew Lopez’s play looks at how gay men in their early 30s relate to their community’s history, and especially the peak of the AIDS epidemic. “If we can’t have a conversation with our past, then what will be our future?” asks Eric Glass (Kyle Soller).

Eric is the show’s moral center, a gentle soul and left-leaning activist whose exact opposite happens to be his boyfriend of seven years, Toby Darling (Andrew Burnap), a charismatic but corrosive and narcissistic writer with a self-destructive bent.

Eric and Toby break up a third of the way into the story, which sends them on wildly divergent trajectories. They get close to, respectively, the older, sickly Walter (Paul Hilton) and the troubled prostitute Leo (Samuel H. Levine). Gravitating in these men’s orbits are their friends, representing the families gay people create for themselves. (Exclusively masculine families — the show’s lone woman, portrayed by Lois Smith, appears briefly toward the end.)

Lopez uses E.M. Forster’s novel “Howards End” as a general framework, and Forster himself (Hilton again) acts as a mentor and guide as we accompany Eric and Toby on their journeys.

You don’t need to know the book or even its 1992 movie adaptation to follow the show. The biggest connection with the novel is the idea of a special house, here an upstate abode once used by Walter as a refuge for gay men dying of AIDS, and bequeathed to Eric. Walter’s boyfriend, the Republican billionaire Henry Wilcox (John Benjamin Hickey), gets in the way, though, and it takes a while for Eric to finally connect to the estate. When he does, this makes up the first part’s stunning, emotionally devastating finale — many in the audience were sobbing at the performance I attended.

This could be a fitting closure but unfortunately “The Inheritance” goes on for another three hours or so, and the second part often feels as if it’s going in circles.

What keeps the show involving are the uniformly stellar cast and the effective staging by director Stephen Daldry (“Billy Elliot”) on Bob Crowley’s spare set — a bare platform around which the actors who don’t participate in a scene often congregate. The pace is fairly sustained despite numerous lengthy monologues, and Daldry is especially good at handling the more graphic moments. Those are verbal rather than physical but still potent enough that the show is recommended for audiences 16 and older.

While “The Inheritance” as a whole is not as indispensable as its hype asserts, the first part, at least, delivers.

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