Straight Line Crazy

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Straight Line Crazy by David Hare – Bridge Theatre, London

David Hare’s new play is a history lesson. New York city planner Robert Moses shaped the modern city by supplying it with expressways and parkways, new roads that accelerated the era of the car and drove their way through the properties of the elite and the poor alike. Straight Line Crazy is set at two key points in Moses career as the man no politician dared say no to. In 1926 he established his reputation by building two parkways to Long Island, opening the backyards of New York’s millionaire families to ordinary people, or at least those with a car. In 1955 he met his match, defeated by a coalition of the organised middle class over plans to build an expressway through Washington Square Park. We see the arrogance and unshakeable self-belief that both made him and finished him. He claimed to serve the people, but on the basis that he knew what was best. In the 1920s, the car seemed to be the future. By the 1950s it had become clear that traffic was destroying the places it was supposed to serve.

The strengths of Nicholas Hytner’s production lie in its excellent case. Ralph Fiennes, as Moses, approaches the part like Olivier – finding the right stance. He throws his shoulders back and his chest out to thicken his profile, and prowls the stage as coiled and tense as the braces that hold up his enormous 1920s trousers. Fiennes is in his element as man whose tragic flaw, his inability to understand or respect anyone else, will clearly be his downfall. Hare’s script has him smouldering most of the time, but when he explodes Fiennes is in his element. His favourite politician, man of the people New York Governor Al Smith, is excellently played by Danny Webb as a twinkly, mischievous character whom you cross at your peril. Samuel Barnett and Siobhán Cullen play Moses’ lieutenants, who grow old and disillusioned as the times catch up with Moses and pass him by.

Helen Schlesinger gives perfect impersonation of Greenwich Village campaigner Jane Jacobs, but it is here that the play’s problems become evident. Firstly, Hare only seems interested in Moses. While the play is about him, the writing fails to activate the characters around him, with the exception of Al Smith. Jacobs signs off at the end of the evening by explaining that she later moved to Toronto, but there is no mention of the rather more important fact that she became the greatest and most influential urban thinker of her day, whose work still shapes the way planners think about cities. This is more than an oversight – it diminishes one of the 20th century’s most important figures, making her serve the story of Moses, which is particularly ironic given his apparent disregard for the opinions of ‘housewives’. Other characters struggle for significance. Attempts to provide Barnett and Cullen with storylines feel like token efforts, and they spend much of their time standing around on Bob Crowley’s cavernous architect’s office set, listening as Fiennes tells us what he thinks.

If the point of the play is Moses, Hare also fails to make it clear why. There is no sense of the current relevance of this story, or why he has chosen to stage it now. The events of Moses’ life are relatively well known, and the play resembles a history lesson that ends in 1955, repeating a story as it happened, without analysis of how it changed our 21st century world. There is a hint at the end of the play of a different, more interesting story as Jacobs is given lines claiming Greenwich Village was destroyed by gentrification instead of the expressway – a theme that suddenly brings the evening into brief focus. Ultimately, despite the undeniable quality of the performers, this is a safe and even somewhat dull evening, which does not challenge or threaten the audience, and leaves them smugly confirmed in the beliefs that held when they took their seats.

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