Straight Line Crazy review: A story about the man who created modern New York


David Hare’s latest play charts the rise and fall of this US Titan of urban planning through the simple device of starting at the beginning of his career and cutting to the end. In the 1920s, after bullying the absurdly wealthy Henry Vanderbilt (Guy Paul) into allowing parks to be constructed on his doorstep for poor Manhattanites to access clean air and beaches, Moses proceeds to create highways that will redirect traffic in the simplest possible manner – ie a straight line. 

His intractable progressiveness works when supported by persuasive NYC Governor Al Smith (Danny Webb) but his tactics and abrasive personality ultimately bring him down thirty years later when he tries to run a highway straight through Washington Square Park and meets opposition that even he can’t counter.

Fiennes captures the tone of a man who was an arrogant idealist, blinded by his own unassailable belief that he is right and everyone else is wrong. 

Full of contradictions, he built roads for cars but dismissed the idea of trains, subways and public transport of any kind. 

His loyal assistants Finnuala Connell (Siobhan Cullen) and Ariel Porter (Samuel Barnett) attempt to reason with him to little avail, yet continue to admire him even when the visionary Moses has turned tyrant.

It’s a wordy play and director Nicholas Hytner does well to keep the momentum brisk; the lively exchanges between Fiennes and Webb in particular are fiercely compelling even if Hare’s tendency to lecture and address us with an unnecessary exposition threatens to stall the engine.

Urban planning may not be the sexiest subject for a play but the characters and the performances keep Hare’s articulate construction buoyant.

Bridge Theatre until June 19 (Live broadcast by NT Live 26 May) 


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