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THEATER REVIEW: Who puts the public in public works? A review of ‘Straight Line Crazy’

I’m looking forward to the day when Broadway and Hollywood get sick of reengineering the past to make it more palatable but a lot less interesting.

“If you seek to share the beauty, the beauty is gone.” That’s the warning issued by a horrified (and fictional) “Henry” Vanderbilt, in the opening scene of David Hare’s new play “Straight Line Crazy.” The old money stand-in is in a tense meeting with legendary New York-based urban planner Robert Moses, who is gung-ho to open up Long Island’s beaches to people other than Vanderbilts, Whitneys and Fricks. “Ok, got it,” we think. “Robert Moses, principled man of the people.”

Not so fast. Turns out the populi he has in mind for waterfront recreation has no need for rapid transit, and will make good use of his highway system under their own steam. His people would drive their own cars to the beach, or not come at all. “Ok, so Robert Moses: racist, elitist jerk?” I left the theater 20 hours ago and I still have no idea.

The real Robert Moses. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

All I knew of Moses before watching this British production was that he was the force behind the bisecting of the Bronx with the Cross Bronx Expressway and, therefore, the forced exile of many of that borough’s black and brown residents. I was looking forward to better understanding the motives of a man behind this and dozens of other in- and out-of-city projects, among them the West Side Highway, Queens-Midtown Tunnel, Verrazano Narrows and Throgs Neck bridges, Jones Beach State Park, and Brooklyn Heights. But while Ralph Fiennes definitely spends one 150 minutes embodying a character other than Ralph Fiennes, he’s also not really Robert Moses, either, both because the script doesn’t give him much meat to work with, and what it does offer is not really based on what’s known of the man, or can at least be safely inferred from his time and place.

Moses was apparently well-regarded until his reputation was muddled by the 1974 release of Robert Caro’s biography “The Power Broker,” upon which this play is based. The play muddles it further. It led me to understand that he liked swimming, but was not otherwise fond of nature, hated a boardwalk, but loved a straight line, had a nice wife, yet maybe went home with other women, was an unusually difficult boss, yet somehow inspired such loyalty that his two closest associates stuck with him for 30 years.

What motivated him, I wanted to know. What was the fuel in his tank? Was he greedy? Heartless? Misunderstood? In the standstill bottleneck wait to get out of the theatre, I overheard my neighbors trying to work out some core details of Moses’ life that the play had not clarified.

“So, he was a racist?”

“Yes, yes, he was, and I heard that he was also anti-semitic. Like, he was born Jewish, but denied it, and was actually an anti-semite? I think?”

They shrugged at each other.

Jane Jacobs (played by Mary Stillwaggon Steward in the performance I saw) is the anti-urban renewal activist who describes Moses as “straight line crazy,” but she doesn’t call him that to his face. We are led to think that their natural antagonism will steam the journey, but the two never met in real life, and they don’t onstage, either. Other sources of engaging conflict don’t go anywhere, either. Vanderbilt is vanquished at the outset, and Mariah Heller, Moses’ fictional Black assistant whose family was displaced by the Cross Bronx Expressway, is not given enough backstory or a plausible enough storyline to make her a worthy opponent.

As it is, Jacobs appears mostly at the front of the stage to deliver the sort of plot summary that we’re accustomed to seeing in an introductory snippet or two. The exception is a meeting Jacobs attends to protest a proposed highway through Washington Square Park, during which she gets the memorable line, “Moses looks at the West Village and sees a slum. I look at the West Village and I see a neighborhood. I see life!”

This points to the show’s most resonant—and relevant—theme, which is, “Who do I/you/we mean by ‘the people’?” The play itself, though, does not guide us toward an answer. We’re explicitly told that Moses disdained both aristocrats and slum-dwellers, and also went to battle with the middle class. The most plausible explanation of Moses’ less than humane approach to public works, as far as the play goes, is that, for him, “the people” were a disembodied entity, as real as pieces on a chess board. He is, as the play overtly suggests, the modern day real estate developer’s natural forebear.

(Also the colonizer’s. Moses’ straight line obsession reminded me of the bisecting of New Guinea right down the middle by squabbling colonial authorities. In creating Indonesia’s Irian Jaya, and the mainland of Papua New Guinea, they literally split tribes, villages, and families in two. Moses’ insistence that “[t]he people don’t know what they want until you give it to them,” takes on a different hue when you look at a world map and track where all the straight lines are.)

Soon after intermission, it becomes clear that Connell, played by Judith Roddy, is a stand-in for the aspirational 2022 American conscience. This means she gets to state the obvious, as in “[t]here’s a bias in this office, and it’s a bias toward the better-off,” and generally sound like the scold inside our collective head, and nothing at all like a flesh and blood woman of any era, much less one born in the first decade of the 20th century. She speaks for example of her Depression “mindset,” a term that surely did not come into common use until well past her time.

We get no idea what she gets out of working with Moses, if she’s genuinely fond of him, or why she only abandons him at the tail end, rather than when it becomes clear that not only does he intend to put three horizontal highways across Manhattan, he also withholds that information from everyone outside his office.

I hope “The Power Broker” will make sense of the unreal on-stage character, flaring one moment bombastic, the next meek, who dismisses women, then in the next instant employs with his female employees the closely attuned listening skills of a sensitive yogi. (“Is that your view?” he repeatedly asks them.) From what my mother has described to me of the crass, casually misogynistic corporate New York office culture of Mad Men era, it would be a laughable understatement to assert that Robert Moses as portrayed in this play would not belong there. As for racism, the only direct evidence of it is a brusque dismissal of “that colored woman.” But the woman in question is that employee Heller, with whom he’s just had a respectful, even deferential, colloquy. Come on. Evasive history is not what our moment calls for. We’re big kids. Give it to us straight. Don’t graft 2022 sensibilities onto 1950s people. Emily Dickinson said, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” We depend on artists to show us the truth in a new light, not history with new facts.

The show takes on a particularly preachy tone toward the end. You’ve not heard awkward laughter until you’ve heard the front orchestra’s reaction to Jane Jacobs’ history lesson about the West Village’s “cleansing” of poor people. Fiennes, for his part, as it is clear his star is fading, stares hard into the stage right section of the audience, and promises, “Fashion will always blow right back in.” Indeed. The Shed theater itself, located in Hudson Yards, is not the sort of place built for the masses, and is not easily accessible by public transportation.

I’m looking forward to the day when Broadway and Hollywood get sick of reengineering the past to make it more palatable but a lot less interesting. How about someone take up a serious study of the life of, say, Oseola McCarty, the washerwoman who gave her life savings to the University of Southern Mississippi? You know, one of the “people” we’re always hearing about, but never actually seeing.

“Straight Line Crazy” is playing at The Shed (in the Bloomberg building on 30th Street, off 9th Avenue) until December 18. Tickets are sold out, but if, like me, you put your name on the waiting list, you might snag a spot when extra seats become available. And if your spot is anything like my $99 spot, it will be located in the furthest corner from the action, facing the stage from the right with a partially obstructed view, so that you’ll become pretty well-acquainted with the contours of Ralph Fiennes’ neck and Judith Roddy‘s shoulders. (I’ve never before sat so close to the backstage of a play that I could both hear the actors’ and stagehands’ chatter and smell their weed smoke.) If you are straight line crazy enough to buy resale tickets on StubHub, those will set you back somewhere in the $400 to $3,000 range.

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