Ralph Fiennes nails Robert Moses – the gruff, no-nonsense New York voice, the pugnacious face, the planted stance ready for combat; pelvis thrust forward. Commanding, confident to the point of hubris, Fiennes brings to life a man dead forty years who was the most powerful New Yorker of the twentieth century, and one of the most fascinating – a man largely unknown in England, where “Straight Line Crazy,” originated earlier this year, starring, directed and written by Englishmen.
It takes a certain amount of confidence, though perhaps not to the point of hubris, to bring David Hare’s play to New York, where Robert Moses, an urban planner and master builder who at one point had 13 different job titles simultaneously, is much better known.
Fiennes is frankly the main reason to see “Straight Line Crazy.” The set is sparse, mostly maps and charts and a few bland models upstage; the dozen supporting cast members are fine but few of them get much to do, and the observations and insights about Moses and New York City history (some of which are debatable) are rarely news for New Yorkers who already know about Moses. And there are many of us who do, for a slew of reasons:
-Moses is the subject of one of the best and most celebrated books about New York City, “The Power Broker” by Robert Caro, written in 1974 when Moses was still alive.
-Much of modern New York (city and state) was his creation – its park system and playgrounds, its beaches (like Jones Beach), its bridges (the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge), its modern landmarks (Lincoln Center, the UN headquarters), a handful of which bear his name (Robert Moses State Park, Robert Moses Playground);
-New Yorkers vividly recall (or are freshly taught) many of the bitter fights in which he was involved, both those he won – his building of Cross-Bronx Expressway, which destroyed whole neighborhoods in the Bronx – as well as those he lost — his fight to keep Joseph Papp’s Free Shakespeare out of Central Park; his plan to put an expressway through Washington Square Park.
-He is even a relatively familiar character on stage in New York: He was the main character (portrayed by a series of oversized puppets) in “The Radiant City” by Theodora Skipitares in 1991, Boozy by Alex Timbers in 2005, and twice in 2017, “Bulldozer” (a rock musical where he was portrayed by Constantine Maroulis) and Illyria, which is all about Papp’s fight for Shakespeare in the Park.
Given how overwhelming Moses’ story and his legacy, Hare has wisely chosen to dramatize just two episodes in his life: His effort in 1926 to build two highways on Long Island (the Northern State Parkway and Southern State Parkway), as a first step to establishing a network of public parks and beaches on the island, and in 1955, his fight to put up that expressway in Washington Square Park.
If the aim of the first battle might seem to be an unmitigated good, and the second an unmitigated evil, Hare details how much they actually had in common, both of them a reflection of an intransigent personality who prided himself on “getting things done,” no matter what anybody else thought. The title of the play comes from a remark he attributes to Jane Jacobs (Helen Schlesinger), Moses’ actual nemesis in the fight over Washington Square Park: “Like so many planners, he wanted to put a straight line between any two points and build where his ruler went.”
(Schlesinger has one great moment, when she says at a meeting to oppose the expressway: “if you’re thinking I’m too sure of myself, I can only say you’re right. Yes, I am sure of myself. But unlike Robert Moses, I’m not full of myself.” — and while saying this thrusts out her pelvis just as we’ve seen Fiennes do!)
We see Moses outsmarting the aristocratic families of Long Island who universally oppose the parkways, refusing to move the highway a few yards to save a poobah’s orchard, appropriating their property illegally, and even enlisting Governor Al Smith (a charmingly irascible Danny Webb) to help him beat the rap. Three decades later, he has perfected his refusal to listen to critics of his proposals, not even bothering to meet with them.
We see Moses establishing his philosophy of authoritarian democracy from the get-go, in conversation with Finnuala Connell (Judith Roddy), a fictional draftswoman in his employ. Yes, their aim is to serve the public, but “we must advance their fortunes without having any respect for their opinions.”
“Is that not a contradiction?”
“Our job is to lead, not to follow.”
“Straight Line Crazy” weaves in as much information as it can about Moses as a public figure. (There are also a few awkward and dubious scenes that try to get at his personal life, such as a conversation with a staffer about his alcoholic wife.) He was a man of riveting contradictions: He was opposed to public transportation, he saw the car as the future, but never learned how to drive, always relying on a chauffeur. He built for the masses, but had a bias towards white people, and the affluent.
There is a deep irony that this none-too-positive depiction of Robert Moses is being presented at The Shed, the one cultural good in a massive development dense with ugly glass skyscrapers for the rich, Hudson Yards, that is arguably in the mold of late-era Robert Moses.
Straight Line Crazy
at The Shed through December 18, 2023
Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes including intermission
Tickets: $279. “A limited number of $29 rush tickets are also available day-of-show through the TodayTix app.”
Written by David Hare
Directed by Nicholas Hytner and Jamie Armitage,
Set and costume design by Bob Crowley, sound design by George Dennis, lighting design by Jessica Hung Han Yun,
Cast (in order of appearance) Ralph Fiennes as Robert Moses; Helen Schlesinger as Jane Jacobs; Guy Paul as Henry Vanderbilt; David Bromley as Stamford Fergus, U/S Henry Vanderbilt and Governor Al Smith; Judith Roddy as Finnuala Connell; Adam Silver as Ariel Porter; Danny Webb as Governor Al Smith; Alana Maria as Shirley Hayes; Al Coppola as Sandy McQuade, U/S Ariel Porter; Andrew Lewis as Lewis Mason, U/S Robert Moses; Krysten Peck as Carol Amis, U/S Shirley Hayes and Mariah Heller; Mary Stillwaggon Stewart as Nicole Savage, U/S Finnuala Connell and Jane Jacobs; Alisha Bailey as Mariah Heller
Photographs by Kate Glicksberg