The man behind 627 miles of Expressway
“The roads mean nothing to me. It’s the state parks which have meaning. The roads are just the means of getting there.”
Few in the UK, outside the architectural and planning professions have heard of Robert Moses, the man who for 40 years instigated much of the planning for New York’s highways and parks. He is so well known in New York, that there has been a 2017 rock musical about him, Bulldozer, the ballad of Robert Moses. What theatre people might know about Moses was his opposition in the 1960s to using Central Park, “his park”, for free Shakespeare Productions.
Robert Moses’s career has inspired David Hare to write a new play, his first major production since I’m Not Running for the National in 2019. He seems to be a man of contradictions and anomalies. In Nicholas Hytner’s fine production we see Robert Moses (Ralph Fiennes), a man of two halves in the two acts of the play.
In 1926 he is brushing up the wrong way the rich landowners of Long Island’s shoreline. We see an interview he has with Henry Vanderbilt (Guy Paul) and Robert Moses where Moses is proposing a state park with good road access from the city. Vanderbilt and the others are opposing it. Moses asks for leisure space for the working classes who live in the crowded city.
Fiennes as Moses is persuasive, he tells Vanderbilt he was President of the Oxford Union. He was at Wadham College where he read Jurisprudence. I didn’t find him charming, just making good points and counter arguments, with his articulate, debating skill.
We meet two of Moses’s draughtsmen, Finnuala Connell (Siobhán Cullen) and Ariel Porter (Samuel Barnett) and see them working in a studio filled with maps on drawing boards. Later, the set has multiple architectural white models of skyscrapers and bridges.
The 1920s saw Le Corbusier’s ideas about architecture and cities come to the fore. These ideas dominated 1960s UK urban redevelopment with small slum houses demolished and replaced with tower blocks surrounded by parks. In retrospect, not quite the urban idyll that was envisaged! Moses was initially a Le Corbusier fan.
Governor Al Smith (the inimitable Danny Webb) is a prime mover in Act One sponsoring Robert Moses’s ideas. Webb is masterly as the cigar smoking, straight talking mayor who needs to kept away from the hooch.
In Act Two we come forward to the 1950s and see the battle for Washington Square Park not to have two sunken four lane highways running through it and see Moses opposed by local residents and those of Greenwich village. Shirley Hayes (Alana Maria) learns to organise the campaign. There is also a force for more public transport and fewer motor cars and car parks. In opposition to Robert Moses from the beginning is campaigner Jane Jacobs (Helen Schlesinger, unrecognisable in glasses and a straight grey bobbed wig). We also see an unpleasant side to Moses, as an employer exposing his racist attitudes towards Mariah Heller (Alisha Bailey) whose Brooklyn relatives have been moved out 12 miles away to make way for what they call “Heartbreak Highway”. There are his professional actions which seem elitist when his bridges are too low for buses.
This play is well performed and beautifully directed but you will have to make up your own mind about Robert Moses. I can’t explain why his ideas become less democratic. David Hare doesn’t give a reason for Moses’s change of principle. What possible reason can there be for the man behind the building of the Lincoln Center to oppose free Shakespeare in Central Park?
Straight Line Crazy
Written by David Hare
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Mary Stillwaggon Stewart
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Designer: Bob Crowley
Composer: George Fenton
Lighting Designer: Jessica Hung Han Yun
Sound Designer: George Dennis
Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes with an interval
Booking to 18th June 2022
The Bridge Theatre
3 Potters Fields Park
London, SE1 2SG
Phone: 0333 320 0051
Website: The Bridge Theatre
Rail/Tube: London Bridge
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Bridge Theatre
on 30th March 2022