Ralph Fiennes transforms Robert Moses, the “Master Builder,” into a big bore in the movie “Straight Line Crazy”
The didactic drama “Straight Line Crazy,” about New York City’s illustrious planner Robert Moses, has a lot to say about him, but its airless preaching makes for a stuffy piece of theatre.
Ironies should abound in a play about Robert Moses, the urban planner, “master builder,” and subject of Robert Caro’s iconic and devastating biography The Power Broker who, despite failing in his one attempt to win elected office himself, reshaped New York over four decades as its most powerful public official.
With Straight Line Crazy’s arrival this week from London to make its New York debut Off-Broadway (through Dec. 18) at the Shed in Hudson Yards, those ironies begin and, unhappily, generally end.
That is the neighborhood’s signature performance space, which was built over a multi-billion dollar platform on top of a rail yard to realise the business community’s long-held dream of extending Manhattan’s sprawling office districts onto previously underutilised land on one of the most valuable islands in the world.
But three and a half years after it debuted, complete with a rare new train station, many of Hudson Yards’ expensive apartments are vacant because wealthy tenants left during the pandemic for better places to live, its main commercial tenant failed, and its main draw for tourists, a 150-foot-tall, 2,500-step staircase to nowhere called “The Vessel,” has been “temporarily closed” because a fourth person committed suicide by jumping off of it in July.
Hudson Yards was the creation of a single private developer, in contrast to Lincoln Center, which was built by John Rockefeller III as a non-profit project after Moses used eminent domain to claim and clear the “slums” of the existing community of San Juan Hill and drive the majority of its residents, who were mostly Black and Puerto Rican, to upper Manhattan and the Bronx.
That is Trump ally Stephen Ross, who received billions in government funding for his private and for-profit business, including a new train station, in an increasingly rare instance of something significant and brand-new actually getting built in New York City in the absence of a Moses-like government official with the authority to ruthlessly complete such projects with the interests of the general public at least nominally in mind.
In fact, Straight Line Crazy, which refers to how Moses “wanted to put a straight line between any two points and build where his ruler went”—clearly referring to his infamous plan Jacobs helped thwart for an expressway through the centre of Manhattan—is making its debut just after Lincoln Center’s spectacular and sonically superior new $500 million David Geffen Hall opened last month with a multimedia show about San J. (This is undoubtedly a reminder that if you are successful in evicting the “wrong” people, you will ultimately have enough money to pay a loving and artistic tribute to those who were evicted before returning to your original course of action.)
However, in Straight Line Crazy, these ironies are largely lost, buried despite some excellent performances, strong direction, smart, map- and model-heavy minimalist staging, and quietly telling costuming by Bob Crowley, in a didactic and wordy script by playwright David Hare that’s full of lively asides about the orbits formed by powerful people and their functionaries but does so to advance a story that largely replaces insight and dramatic progression with urbanist fan st.
The Power Broker may have been read in its entirety that one time, or perhaps viewers simply nod in recognition when TV talking heads use the hefty and recognisable book as part of their Zoom backdrop. In this case, talented people hit all the necessary beats while doing nothing at all to disappoint the audience’s fixed expectations about the IP.