The National Theatre Live’s production of “Straight Line Crazy” comes to the M.V. Film Center on Sunday, Sept. 18, at 1 pm and Wednesday, Sept. 21, at 7 pm. For those with an interest in the impact of city planner Robert Moses in Manhattan and the rest of the country, this performance, recorded in London’s Bridge Theatre, is a must-see.
“Straight Line Crazy” was written by David Hare, directed by Nicholas Hytner and Jamie Armitage, and stars Tony awardwinner and Oscar nominee Ralph Fiennes. “Straight Line Crazy” depends almost entirely on vivid dialogue, focusing on two eras: 1926, when Moses planned two expressways from Manhattan to Long Island; and 1955, when he tried to build a road through Washington Square Park in Manhattan.
Moses managed to change the American landscape, beginning with Long Island and Manhattan, then the entire nation. The avowed hero of urban development, he designed and rebuilt public spaces through roads that reconfigured them. Toward the end of his 40-year career, he refused to accept the sociopolitical change of race, power, and class that was taking place.
As Moses, Fiennes creates a powerful and compelling presence in the play’s vivid dialogue. Early on, viewers will see the monomania and power that characterized Moses and led to his control of many forms of urban construction. Other actors who play an important role in “Straight Line Crazy” include Danny Webb as Gov. Al Smith and Siobhán Cullen as Finnuala Connell.
Moses rose to power after his success in debating at Yale University. He was active in 18 U.S. presidencies, from Grover Cleveland to Ronald Reagan. In 1926 at the age of 36, he battled with Gov. Smith over the construction of expressways from Manhattan to Long Island. Despite Smith’s vibrant characterization by Webb, Moses succeeded. He went on to continue construction of roads across New York, destroying the integrity of Black and poor neighborhoods. Finnuala stands by his side for most of his career, not rejecting his plans until his demise.
In 1955, almost 30 years had passed by the time Moses tried to build a road through Washington Square Park, and enough opponents confronted him to prevent it happening. They included Jane Jacobs, played by Helen Schlesinger, whose book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” influenced many to reject Moses’s ideas. Moses refused to accept the changes she espoused.