Ralph Fiennes in “Straight Line Crazy”

Ralph Fiennes as Robert Moses.
Photo: Manuel Harlan

Can you make a heartbreaking drama of city planning? In theory, of course. The potential to find narrative power in this square subject lies in adjusting concrete and steel’s attention to people and communities, looking for beneficiaries and victims. This is clearly David Hare’s intention in crazy in a straight line, his new play – presented at the aptly named Bridge Theater in London – about the career of Robert Moses, the visionary and monstrous mid-century master planner of New York City and Long Island. Moses was the man who demolished large swathes of poor (and mostly non-white) neighborhoods to hack the highways through the city, sending residents into apartment complexes that were drab when new and shattered. worsened from there. In The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s immense and definitive biography of Moses, the human side of all this social, political and physical engineering slowly surges off the page, portraying a man so confident in his own opinion and so grounded in his own power that no one can stop him. He lived, he said, to serve the people; nevertheless, he didn’t much appreciate real people, or what they wanted.

Crazy in a straight line is not quite The Power Broker: The Game, but you can’t do anything with Moses unless you’ve absorbed Caro’s book, and Hare clearly did. (You can buy a copy in the lobby, though it’s not in the credits.) The Carovian framing of the man appears again and again on stage: Moses’ time swimming; his cunning manipulation of public officials; the alcoholism of his first wife; his growing contempt for any opinion beyond his own and, of course, those infamous and insidious low bridges on the promenades.

Ralph Fiennes is impressive to watch as he channels some of the muscular, vocal grit of the man. It’s a play in two acts, with the second set roughly three decades after the first, and the hair and makeup changes from the intermission are minimal at best. Fiennes mostly adjusts his stance to read older and heavier, and that’s enough to age him. During the first act, set in 1926, he confronts a Vanderbilt and Governor Al Smith (Danny Webb), and tricks them both into getting what he wants, as his deputies rush and Jane Jacobs ( Helen Schlesinger, oddly resembling Jacobs) lurks in the future. In the second half, it’s 1955 and he’s an emperor of everything he studies – except for Jacobs at his community action meetings and a young black architect in Moses’ office (Alisha Bailey , who does well in a somewhat one-dimensional role) who talks up to telling him about what he did to the Bronx neighborhood where his family lived. We are supposed to see that the world has changed and its ideas have not changed, which is a pretty reasonable reading of Moses’ error.

Robert Moses, circa 1964.
Photo: Truman Moore/Getty Images

It takes a lot of explaining to get everyone to this point, and therein lies the problem. On the pages of Caro’s book, the human cost of Moses’ schemes increases over time and peaks in the final 400 or so pages. At this point, a reader is steeped in the state of New York City in the middle of the century, the Depression-era economy, the dynamics of the state legislature, the housing and transport policy and, above all, the dominant state of mind of the planners of the time. Hare, on the other hand, has to do the whole thing in two hours on stage, and do it for an audience (particularly in London) that doesn’t know much about, say, the details of the Major Deegan highway. So what the characters do, scene after scene, is stand and talk to each other. Moses has a plan; one of his assistants questions him on this, explaining for several paragraphs why the boss could be wrong. Then Moses firmly explains to him why he is not.

Let’s put aside that this rather balanced character portrayal is an absurd characterization. Robert Moses, a former Yale debate champion, was known for his fierceness and intransigence in the face of a challenge. If you at least tried to rant to the real man about why some aspect of his plans were flawed, he’d immediately spill out every angle of your argument (which he’d most likely figured out how to ship with a sneer, decades earlier), and then can -to be ejected from the building and ruin your career. He stormed out of meetings when someone disagreed with him. He maneuvered and crushed decades of New York governors and mayors, including Franklin Roosevelt. A 25-year-old assistant — especially a woman, especially a woman of color — wasn’t going to talk him out of anything.

Even if you accept all this as a dramaturgical necessity, we find ourselves here with a very monologue, very static play. (And it doesn’t have to be. It’s entirely possible to wrap this oh-so-cheesy exposition into a script and still have it thrilling; the movie Apollo 13 does it perfectly, for example.) Here there is a ground to point dotted lines on maps, including one giant-sized one that unrolls like a carpet, literally allowing Moses to roam the New York landscape he has sculpted as he pleases. Somehow it makes it look smaller instead of bigger. As he passionately explains the need for the three freeways through Manhattan that he demands, everyone stands there, and it comes across as a plea rather than a Napoleon or Caesar position. When a longtime assistant essentially calls him a racist, he responds to the accusation almost softly.

Is it a hometown quibble to say that the series also omits some details about New York? An assistant in Moses’ offices refers to the “fashion district” rather than the garment district. (Perhaps you’d hear that today, but in 1926, you wouldn’t.) Governor Al Smith was legendary for his distinctive maroon derby—as much a signature at the time as Steve Jobs’ black turtleneck. was in his – and here he’s wearing a soft black felt fedora. Jacobs’ meetings in Greenwich Village, organized to fight the highway Moses wanted to cut through Washington Square, display significant racial diversity, surely intended to sharpen the contrast with Moses’ white supremacy. The real mid-century village was ethnically mixed but very white. The historical texture is just a little off, a little too often.

Speaking of Al Smith: If you put that hat aside, Webb is the best thing on the show. Smith himself was a talkative public figure, a kid from the Lower East Side slums who became an absolutely adored four-term governor (and lost the presidency, in a landslide, in 1928, largely because he was Catholic). Hare and Webb portray him very broadly, eliciting big laughs as he swore like a tank top, joked around with Moses, and kicked back a few shots of illicit bourbon. The room vibrates when he is on stage, not because she is less talkative, but because Crazy in a straight line is, if only for those 20 minutes or so, inhabited not by plans for people but by some real ones.

Crazy in a straight line is at the Bridge Theater in London until June 18.

Luz W. German