Straight Line Crazy review: Ralph Fiennes taps into his inner Pacino

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 (Manuel Harlan)
(Manuel Harlan)

A barnstorming, scenery-chewing Ralph Fiennes anchors David Hare’s new play about Robert Moses, who created parks for New York’s poor in the 1920s and by 1955 was ready to sacrifice Manhattan to the car. It’s a polished, witty, impeccably researched work but overly reliant on placing obstacles – plutocrats, politicians, colleagues, activists – in front of the Moses bulldozer. Nicolas Hytner’s production is by turns energetically brash and terribly baggy. Was the autocratic Moses a hero or villain? That’s up to us.

Okay - urban planning isn’t an obviously sexy subject. But as a thoroughgoing metropolitan ponce I was absolutely here for the arguments about whether great cities are built by visionaries or communities, whether people should be given what they need or what they want, and how conservation is balanced with growth. These debates are played out among draughtsman’s tables on a stage sunlit with American promise, and on a floor-wide map, over which Fiennes crawls at one point, obsessively clawing out Moses’ vision.

The planner is a fascinating insider-outsider: utopian, difficult, privileged and in denial about his Jewish roots. Fiennes plays him first like a prizefighter at a weigh-in, full of swagger with shoulders squared. In the second half, 30 years older, he slumps like a neglected prophet, while trying to turn Washington Square into an expressway interchange. His cheek-chewing monomania reminded me powerfully of someone I used to work with, and the toxic mix of self-pity and aggression will surely strike a chord with many.

Straight Line Crazy at the Bridge Theatre (Manuel Harlan)
Straight Line Crazy at the Bridge Theatre (Manuel Harlan)

It’s a very binary play, dealing with just two moments in Moses’ hugely influential career. His bullish professional life contrasts with his failing offstage marriage. He’s challenged by women: in the office by ballsy subordinate Finnuala (an assured Siobhan Cullen) and in public by urban thinker Jane Jacobs (a shaky Helen Schlesinger).

There are nice comic turns from Guy Paul as a complacent Henry Vanderbilt, Daniel Webb as working class 1920s NY governor Al Smith and Samuel Barnett as a dry junior planner. The second half introduces some non-white voices, and the question of whether Moses’ policies were overtly or incidentally racist. He not only levelled black and Hispanic neighbourhoods in the Bronx but actively fought against bus and rail access to his beloved Long Island beaches. Again, the verdict is up to us.

This is not so much an even-handed play as an ambivalent one, and it doesn’t represent the best work of anyone involved. It does get tiresome hearing characters endlessly explain things to each other that they already know. That said, it’s kind of fun to watch Hytner pull out all the stops and let Fiennes tap into his inner Pacino, and to witness Hare chasing down arguments that are absolutely pertinent to the fume-choked but energy-starved and impoverished London of today. “The car is the future,” insists Fiennes’ Moses. You should have heard the laughter.

Bridge Theatre, to 18 June; bridgetheatre.co.uk

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