BY Rhoda Feng in Opinion | 27 OCT 22

The Contradictions of Robert Moses in ‘Straight Line Crazy’

Rhoda Feng reviews David Hare’s new play – now playing at The Shed, New York – exploring the mythologies behind the controversial city planner

BY Rhoda Feng in Opinion | 27 OCT 22

Planning means nothing to Robert Moses. Or so the urban developer declaims near the start of David Hare’s energetic play Straight Line Crazy (2022), co-presented by The Shed, New York, and London Theatre Company. Instead, Moses (played by a flinty Ralph Fiennes) prides himself on being a man who gets things done, whether it’s drafting airtight legislation or driving a stake for a new project into contested ground. Anyone who tackles Moses as a subject does so under the shadow of Robert Caro. It’s been almost 50 years since the publication of his behemoth biography, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974), which immortalized Moses as a master builder who re-shaped life in an ‘ungovernable’ city and beyond. Hare’s play is not explicitly based on Caro’s book (and doesn’t assume any prior knowledge), but it is nevertheless indebted to it in several respects, and calls out to it in the programme. In just under three hours, we get a portrait of Moses that’s a study in contrasts: of a man who claimed to serve the public but snubbed the lower classes; who built numerous bridges, causeways, parkways and expressways, but didn’t drive; who was opposed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1930s New Deal economic policy, yet deployed federally funded labour for his projects.

Left to right: Danny Webb as Governor Al Smith, Ralph Fiennes as Robert Moses, Judith Roddy as Finnuala Connell and Adam Silver as Ariel Porter in Straight Line Crazy, 2022, The Shed, New York. Photograph: Kate Glicksberg

Moses started out as an idealist and nonpartisan reformer (at Oxford, his dissertation was on the need for an elite civil service staffed by gentlemen) and grew to become a public figurehead – either a visionary or a despot, depending on your view – who wielded power for close to 50 years. His projects spanned 160 square kilometres and was valued at US$27 billion (in 1968 dollars). An adroit administrator nonpareil, he was able to bend mayors, governors and other high-ranking officials to his will like an industrial-strength magnet. From Caro’s monumental biography, we also know plenty of unsavoury facts about this political juggernaut, who was equal parts urban planner and social engineer. Among the better-known offenses: Moses’s projects displaced up to 500,000 people – mostly communities of colour and the economically disadvantaged; he kept dossiers on the private lives of his nemeses; and he deliberately built expressways with low overpasses to discourage the type of urban dwellers who rely on mass transit from visiting Long Island.

One question rears its hobgoblin head in both Caro’s book and Hare’s play: was Moses responsible for the ‘fall of New York’? While it once may have been fashionable to lay the blame at Moses’s feet, such a contention now smacks of the Great Man theory of social change, in which the forces of history are attributed largely to one individual. Wisely, Hare’s play, directed by Nicholas Hytner and Jamie Armitage, doesn’t settle the question definitively, though it doesn’t shy away from asking related ones, mostly through the figure of urban historian Jane Jacobs (Helen Schlesinger). For instance, would it have been possible to approximate the scale of Moses’s achievements without resorting to coercive means that flout community input? Though Jacobs and Moses never met in real life, they’re set up by Hare as polarized figures, with Jacobs insinuating herself between scenes to editorialize on Moses’s fait accompli, can’t-make-an-omelette-without-cracking-some-eggs tactics. (The play’s title comes from a remark by Jacobs about Moses.)

Helen Schlesinger as Jane Jacobs in Straight Line Crazy, 2022, The Shed, New York. Photograph: Kate Glicksberg

In the first act, it’s 1926 and Moses is preoccupied with building two parkways across Long Island. Pride of place is given, on Jaimie Todd’s wood-panelled set, to a drafting table with heaps of paper and a model of Long Island. We get a taste of Moses’s inflexibility and his fanaticism about precision when he berates his main assistant, Ariel Porter (Adam Silver), for altering their plans for the Southern State Parkway to appease the plutocratic Whitney family, who do not want it to intrude on their orchard. Porter is ordered to restore the plan to the original version and the rest of the team to begin building – even though there is a lawsuit hanging over them. Moses airily dismisses the legal threat, reasoning: ‘Once you sink that first stake, they’ll never make you pull it up.’ (Land appropriation is essentially aggressive eminent domain.) Most of the draftsmen in Moses’s Long Island office are too deferential to criticize him, but Ariel and another colleague, Finnuala Connell (a superb Judith Roddy), occasionally muster the courage to speak their minds. Connell also offers meta-commentary throughout the play, stepping out episodically to directly address the audience from some point in the future. When New York Governor Al Smith (Danny Webb) shows up, it’s a blast of fresh air. A product of the Lower East Side, the Irishman could not be more different from Moses in temperament, but the two get along famously. Moses enjoys Smith’s patronage, while the governor enjoys sharpening his wit against the other’s whetstone of self-importance.

Ralph Fiennes as Robert Moses in Straight Line Crazy, 2022, The Shed, New York. Photograph: Kate Glicksberg

The play loses some steam when it moves to Act II, which takes place in 1955. In the intervening years, much has changed. Is it churlish to quibble with what a nearly three-hour play omits? I’ll risk it. Moses becomes Secretary of State in 1927, only to be forced out two years later by Roosevelt (Smith’s successor, for whom Moses reserves special disdain), and then becomes Parks Commissioner on the strength of one of his bills. No mention is made in the play of later Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, which strikes me as a missed opportunity, given that he and Moses were simpatico spirits: two uncompromising leaders with a yen for pageantry and besting opponents. Theirs was also a relationship of ferocious arguments and petty squabbles. (I would have relished seeing La Guardia spar with Moses, a former debate champion.) Instead, Act II has a more diffuse sense of outrage: it’s focused on the social costs to Moses’s dictatorial methods as a city planner and elucidates how his public works were yoked to racial and economic prejudices. A contingent of Greenwich Village residents, including Jacobs, is made to bear the burden of representing Moses’s chief critics. (A huge poster in the background makes clear their mission: ‘Save Washington Square’.) By the end of the play, Moses has effectively become the old guard; he alienates some close colleagues and suffers the mental breakdown of his first wife. But his legacy? That’s never for a moment in question: it tugs at you insistently and all but swallows you whole as you wriggle your way out of the theatre and confront the city in all its glassy, technocratic glory.

David Hare’s Straight Line Crazy is playing at the Shed, New York, until 18 December.

Main Image: Straight Line Crazy, 2022, poster art. Courtesy: The Shed; photograph: Brett Beyer and Dan Wilton

Rhoda Feng writes about theater and books for 4Columns, The Baffler, The White Review, The New Republic, The Nation, and The New York Times, among other publications.