Straight Line Crazy
David Hare’s new play is about US city planner Robert Moses who changed New York infrastructure, driving freeways in a straight line through New York and Long Island. From the 1920s through to 1975, he held positions responsible for parks, planning, bridge building and other public works through which he shaped the urban development of the whole region for more than half a century but Straight Line Crazy concentrates on two key periods.
The first act presents him in 1926 developing freeways to link the city with the beaches of Long Island; in the second, in 1955, he plans to extend the freeways he has driven through New York deep into Manhattan and straight through Washington Square Park.
Ralph Fiennes’s Moses seems to have his heart in the right place as he tells Henry Vanderbilt (Guy Paul) that, since Henry Ford invented holidays, there is a new thing called leisure for the workers who live in the slum tenements that make Vanderbilt money and they should have access to parks and to Long Island’s beaches. But this isn’t quite the egalitarian you might think: he reasons that it is a way to keep the poor from revolting, and when Governor Al Smith suggests a railway, Moses insist that the future lies in the motor car.
He gets loyal support from assistants Finnuala Connell (a spirited Siobhán Cullen) and Ariel Porter (Samuel Barnett) and insists on driving his route through Whitney property without deviation, but he does put a foot wrong pressing ahead with a project without waiting for Governor Smith’s signature.
Fiennes makes Moses a force to be reckoned with. He doesn’t like being called a planner: he doesn’t just plan things, he gets them done. When Danny Webb’s whisky-fuelled, cigar puffing Al Smith turns up in the office, their friendly sparring is the highlight of Nicholas Hytner’s production, the wily little man punching as hard as the big guy, playing to relish.
Moses is the man who got bridges built, playground and parks, tunnels, a dam and an airport, getting rid of slums to make way for expressways, but he is dead set against rapid transit subways and builds bridges that buses can’t pass under. He declares that Americans want to travel independently; the carless masses weren’t part of his scheme of things.
The second half of the play moves on thirty years. Moses still sees the automobile as king, but others are questioning whether building new roads eases the city’s congestion or extends it. Finnuala and Ariel can hear the voices of protest and Mariah Heller (Alisha Bailey), a young black woman new to the company, becomes one of them, her family neighbourhood having been razed by Moses’s developments.
The second half doesn’t have an energy to match the first half (no Governor equivalent, though opponent Jane Jacobs, played by Helen Schlesinger, gets a brief look-in) but Fiennes, Cullen and Barnett skilfully capture the ageing of Moses and his two assistants. Moses is a man who now sees his wife going into an asylum, a man whose ideas are being seriously challenged. He may behave as though he is untouched and declare, “I can’t be bullied into feelings I don’t have!” but there is a vulnerability beginning to make its appearance.
This is a fine performance from Fiennes, framed in a production that spreads maps across floors with Bob Crowley’s design switching rapidly from huge design office to protest meeting in a moment, keeping the action always in the moment.
For those who cannot get to the theatre, Straight Line Crazy will be broadcast live to cinemas across the UK via NT Live on Thursday 26 May 2022
Reviewer: Howard Loxton