While Hare embeds such controversy in his historical account of the prolific Moses, he does so with a distinct lack of innovation that – whatever you might think of the man – does not reflect Hare’s protagonist. Even with Ralph Fiennes as Moses and Nicholas Hytner as director, Straight Line Crazy winds up being both sprawling and slight, a play-by-numbers that’s not quite fit for purpose.
Set in the 1920s, the first half sees Moses as the determined President of the Long Island State Park Commission. Taking on New York’s high-society plutocrats, he ploughs through private land and builds parkways for the general public. Most of the action takes place in the office, with his juniors Finnuala Connell (Siobhán Cullen) and Ariel Porter (Samuel Barnett) tip-toeing around Fiennes’s pompous and fervent Moses.
But much feels missing: we never see the charm Moses purportedly uses to seduce the press, and an initially raucous scene with scene-stealer Danny Webb as Moses’s mentor Al Smith gets weighed down by exposition. Jane Jacobs, Moses’s later adversary and famed author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, pops up now and again with clunkily inserted monologues designed to foreshadow Moses’s downfall. Played by the excellent Helen Schlesinger, she and Cullen’s Finnuala speak directly to an unspecified audience, making the whole thing a rather meandering watch.
The second half fares slightly better. Set in the 50s, it focuses on an established Moses (now Park Commissioner) and his proposal for a highway to rip through Washington Square Park. This time Schlesinger’s Jacobs has a clear audience to whom she is speaking, a group of passionate citizens opposed to the decimation of their neighbourhood. A new junior planner, Maria Heller (Alisha Bailey), is suspicious of Moses’s ruthless and often prejudicial ‘straight line crazy’ approach to urban planning. She’s haunted by her family’s eviction from their homes, a direct result of Moses’s Cross-Bronx Expressway (known as the ‘heartbreak highway’ for the way it destroyed neighbourhoods).
And yet, at the very moment where Straight Line Crazy should look outward, it moves inward, back to the office for the remainder of the play. While Bailey, Cullen and Barnett do a fine job, their characters ultimately feel perfunctory. Moses’s personal life is referred to almost as a piece of biographical detail. Even Schlesinger’s Jacobs isn’t given the opportunity to answer the questions Jacobs posed in real life: what makes a city a city? and who makes up ‘the public’ that urban planners should serve? These questions, so central to Hare’s epic, are frustratingly underexplored.
More than anything, Straight Line Crazy misses an opportunity to speak to the present moment. Now that New York is once again a flourishing city, there’s an itch for some to rehabilitate Robert Moses’s reputation. In a fleeting flicker of insight at the end of the play, Schlesinger asks whether the now-complete gentrification of Greenwich Village is the result of Robert Moses’s legacy, or hers? Upon this contemporary question is where Straight Line Crazy ought to have built its foundation.
Left to right: David Hare, Nicholas Hytner and Ralph Fiennes
Straight Line Crazy opens at the Bridge following Nicholas Hytner’s delayed production of Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust – La Belle Sauvage, shifted from the summer of 2020 because of the pandemic. Straight Line Crazy reunites Hytner with Olivier and Tony-winning designer Bob Crowley, whom he previously collaborated with on operas The Magic Flute for English National Opera and La Traviata at the Royal Opera House.
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Designer: Bob Crowley
Lighting designer: Jessica Hung Han Yun
Sound designer: George Dennis
Composer: George Fenton
Robert Moses: Ralph Fiennes
Ariel Porter: Samuel Barnett
Jane Jacobs: Helen Schlesinger
Mariah Heller: Alisha Bailey
Finnuala Connell: Siobhán Cullen
Henry Vanderbilt: Guy Paul
Governor Al Smith: Danny Webb
|What||Straight Line Crazy, Bridge Theatre review|
|Where||Bridge Theatre, 3 Potters Fields Park, London, SE1 2SG | MAP|
|Nearest tube||London Bridge (underground)|
16 Mar 22 – 18 Jun 22, Performances at 19:30pm with additional 2:30pm matinees
|Price||£15 - £80|
|Website||Click here for more information and to book|