theater review

A One-Dimensional Robert Moses in Straight Line Crazy

Ralph Fiennes in Straight Line Crazy. Photo: Kate Glicksberg for The Shed

Right off the bat, it’s funny that a play about Robert Moses is playing in Hudson Yards. Come to the Shed, in the most icily luxurious public-private mall-dominated corner of the city, and watch Ralph Fiennes, who is extremely British, reenact the history of our own broken city planning. Learn about the ways Moses rammed through projects of urban renewal that ultimately choked the city and forced out poor families as you sit amid a giant array of new towers that incorporate a light dusting of affordable apartments. Consider stopping by the troubling Vessel for a selfie on the way in and, perhaps, buying a $100,000 watch on the way out. The setting may as well be the message.

But of course, that disjunction lies at the core of Straight Line Crazy — and it ends up being more interesting than the play itself. Written by the prolific David Hare, it comes from London to New York with a rote approach to our history. The first act, set in 1926, has Moses, early in his career, plotting to open up Long Island with a system of parkways, prying access to its beaches and parks away from the richest New York families and into the hands of the car-owning middle class — though crucially, as the play underlines, not to those who would have to rely on public transportation. The second act, set in 1955, returns to Moses a few decades later, as his power starts to crumble and he faces opposition around his plan to ram a highway through Washington Square, facing opposition from community leaders like Jane Jacobs (Helen Schlesinger). Moses and Jacobs never met in real life, as the play acknowledges, though it still sets her up as his bugbear. This occasions more than a little awkward speechifying from her about their rival intentions.

Straight Line Crazy provides fairly basic insights into Moses’s personality and work — the sort that you might have absorbed from Robert Caro’s The Power Broker (or, more likely, someone telling you about it at a dinner party). There’s his obsession with automobile travel, his disdain for “slums” (specially their POC inhabitants), and even his love of swimming — an image that Caro used often in his book. As Moses, Fiennes adopts his best mid-century New Yawk rumble, though his “ah”s occasionally slip into Kennedy-imitation territory. He poses in what a self-help book might tell you are “power positions”: slouched back, arms akimbo. The lines that reference specific bits of New York history tend to play with a New York audience. An aside about the “little paradise which is Nassau County” gets a laugh — as do his little snipes at privileged West Village artistes. But mostly, this is history skimmed along the surface.

As someone not deeply versed in the history of the city, I couldn’t identify much of where the play elides the facts, but I was left with a sense that I was getting City Planning for Dummies all the same. My colleague Christopher Bonanos reviewed the play during its London run and could point to some of the moments when it gets New York wrong. (In crossing the pond, the script has shifted a “Fashion District” reference to the “Garment District,” but it hasn’t gotten more specific elsewhere.) A certain condescension is baked into the script’s construction. In the first act, Fiennes’s Moses spends most of his time talking in abstract terms to a junior employee in his office, an invented Irish American character named Finnuala Connell (Judith Roddy), and in the second, to both her and an invented Black woman named Mariah Heller (Alisha Bailey). Both characters feel about as alive as the tiny architectural models of houses that fill the set, especially when they have to deliver lines like “I have to ask, Mr. Moses, is there no end to your ambition?” or “Now he’d taken on a far deadlier enemy — the one no one ever beats. This time he was fighting the middle classes.” All that’s missing is an ominous trombone blat.

Throughout the play, you’re left with the impression that the characters are describing events that would have made for better theater in and of themselves. We hear about Moses’s wheeling and dealing over power lunches, his complex relationship with his first wife and her mental health, yet the action we see is static. The play gets closest to having a pulse whenever Danny Webb strolls in, champing a cigar and swearing like a sailor as Governor Al Smith. The writing remains broad, but he and Moses have some actual negotiation to do onstage, some action to push forward, rather than abstract ideas to sit around discussing.

According to the Shed’s website, Straight Line Crazy is sold out with a waiting list, presumably built off of the enthusiasm around getting to see Fiennes. He might be able to give a performance that towers, but the script, like a zoning law, only leaves room for him to construct something minor. The whole production feels like a safe bet, relying on pedigree with just enough of a whiff of upper-middlebrow intellectualism to satisfy, but not challenge, a ticket-buying audience. The Shed itself does much the same work for the foggy steel leviathans of Hudson Yards. So it’s disappointing yet fitting for it to have a hit on its hands with something so frictionless.

The Shed opened in 2019 with the arcane weirdness of Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, an Anne Carson work in which Ben Whishaw transformed into Marilyn Monroe in an office building while Renée Fleming sang at him (a dozen or so people walked out, but it was so much better than Blonde). And since then, it has offered up intriguing yet under-supported new work in its Open Call program as well as more conventional star-driven fare like Cecily Strong in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. Straight Line Crazy feels like a further retreat toward the conventional. It’s the kind of thing you might see programmed at any nonprofit around the city — an easy one for subscribers. It requires no variances and fits the grid plan. You could place it anywhere.

A One-Dimensional Robert Moses in Straight Line Crazy