What does a play about Robert Moses tell us about urban planning, both then and now?
“The high horse is a furious place to be addressed from” implores Finnuola Connell, the fictional aide-de-camp to Robert Moses at the outset of David Hare’s Straight Line Crazy, which is showing through December 18th at The Shed’s Griffin Theater. If Hare had heeded her words, his production could have enlightened rather than infuriated.
This two-act play retells — apparently for our epoch — the story of the rise and fall of Robert Moses, the bulldozing builder of twentieth century New York, famously known for “loving the public while hating people.” Embodied by the riveting physicality of Ralph Fiennes, Moses stomps about the engulfing stage designed by Bob Crowley as its most believable presence. Fiennes continually grimaces at the audience, his arms defiantly folded, his legs sprawled in high-waisted trousers — all to reincarnate the iconic, implacable image of Moses at the pinnacle of his powers. Fiennes too has achieved mastery as he dissects, in role after role, the perils of white male hubris, whether in Ibsen’s The Master Builder, Shakespeare’s King Lear, his much-awaited rendition of Mies Van Der Rohe in Farnsworth House, not to mention Rowling’s Voldemort. Fiennes as Moses is perfect, unlike this play.
If Fiennes — and the ego he so powerfully channels — is the story’s gravitational center, Finnoula Connell, played engagingly by Judith Roddy, and another fictional staffer, Mariah Heller, are its sun and moon. Connell, an independent working-class woman has by the play’s opening earned the trust of her boss and the ear of his patron, Governor Al Smith. Smith, enacted by the effervescent Danny Webb, provides the only joyous burst of comedy over the course of this didactic 150-minutes, much like the chocolate at the heart of hardened Tootsie Pop. The first act is set in 1926 during Moses’ early career building parkways and beaches across Long Island — a period referred to by some planners as the era of the “good Moses,” despite his realized desire to privilege white middle-class car owners over both landed aristocrats and diverse inner-city bus riders. (Not accidentally, much of Moses’ Long Island is now Trump/Zeldin pickup truck territory.) Connell, as the conscience Moses never obtains, begs Moses throughout the first act to compromise, but to no avail. By the second act, his team, battle-hardened after building, among other epic works, the arterial system of greater New York — including the scar tissue of the Cross-Bronx Expressway — finds itself in 1955 embroiled in the fight over community objections to plow the Lower Manhattan Expressway through Washington Square Park. Weary and wary, Connell has all but given up on Moses but instead turns to the idealism of Heller, played passionately by Krysten Peck, a Black architecture graduate whose family was displaced by the Cross Bronx yet inexplicably has come to work for, and argue with, the cocksure Moses. In this telling, it is the stinging rebuke of these two nonexistent women that bring home to Moses his own failings.
The problem with the Connell and Heller characters isn’t that they are fabricated, but that they obfuscate the real protagonists of history in favor of young and woke replicants.
By curtain, the befuddling qualities of Hare’s narrative choices induce head-scratching worse than any dandruff could trigger. Why would he choose to glorify through Heller’s voice the famed architect Le Corbusier as a humanist, of all things, when Corb envisioned in his Plan Voisin a degree of urban renewal that would have made Moses blush? Why does the play so fully conflate architecture and urban planning when to this day they remain allied but hardly alloyed fields? And why would Heller — if she had been real, and therefore extraordinarily rare as a Black woman allowed to be an architect in the 1950s — stoop to work for Moses, the man who had decimated her family’s neighborhood? This quandary brought me back to Marshall Berman’s classic All That Is Solid Melts into Air, the must-read elegy about the depredations seared by the Cross Bronx into that once and once-again vibrant community, leading me to think that now, all that is solid melts on the stage.
The problem with the Connell and Heller characters isn’t that they are fabricated, but that they obfuscate the real protagonists of history in favor of young and woke replicants. If the point was to showcase women and people of color as the people who brought down Moses, there was no need to emulate Lin-Manuel Miranda given that these events didn’t take place during the revolutionary war but during the revolutions of the twentieth century. Actual women and people of color did take down Moses — Shirley Hayes, Eleanor Roosevelt, and of course, Jane Jacobs. Yet these historically significant figures play bit roles in the play, particularly Jacobs who intermittently addresses the audience but otherwise barely appears, ostensibly because she never met Moses in real life. But if one goes to the lengths of manufacturing key characters, it is unclear why artistic license could not extend to engaging the real protagonist.
Straight Line Crazy feels like the combined and cleansed cliff notes of two seminal works — Robert Caro’s The Power Broker and Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities — all without grasping any of the nuances and faults that made them and their successors classics.
Instead, the play caricatures Jacobs as much as it attempts to humanize Moses. Jacobs, a neoliberal economist, was not the vocal advocate of mass transit the play depicts, nor is it clear how much she empathized with the suffering of Jews and people of color in the Bronx. In truth, she fought the Lower Manhattan Expressway because it would destroy the lyrical grain she observed in the neighborhood she loved, and about this she was absolutely right, yet the play barely mentions her observational acumen as her North Star. By the play’s finale, we are meant to sympathize with Moses as he copes with his wife’s alcoholism and his waning power. It is laudable to cast their struggle in less black and white terms, much as the late great Hilary Ballon and the venerated historian Kenneth T. Jackson accomplish in their work Robert Moses and the Modern City. But isn’t it better to complicate the binary story through the studied lens of history rather than the politically correct obfuscations of fictional heroines? It is for this reason that Straight Line Crazy feels like the combined and cleansed cliff notes of two seminal works — Robert Caro’s The Power Broker and Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities — all without grasping any of the nuances and faults that made them and their successors classics.
But if, like The Crown, even remote adherence to history is not Hare’s jam, does he at least give us insight into “how power moves today” as the show’s playbill claims? What does this story about the democratization of power mean in today’s age of racial and social inequity, social media, rapid urbanization and climate change?
What the play does get right is the antipathy both Jacobs and Moses shared for professional urban planners, a mirror perhaps of the continued antipathy shared by both the American left and right for any form of centralized power. For we practitioners of urban architecture and planning, the wielding of political power is forever the sword of Damocles above us, not because we should wield it, but because decentralized power is no less immune to “absolute power corrupting absolutely” than is centralized power.
Manhattan is one of the few U.S. central business districts that is not criss-crossed by highways, much to its economic and environmental success — this work ain’t bean bag, and a play about this work must do better.
Recently, my architecture firm received overwhelming community support for an all-affordable housing project we have been advancing for five years in East New York, a largely Black community. But such great communal victories are increasingly rare in progressive white urban communities that have fully weaponized the tactics of Jane Jacobs — all while shedding her values — to stop the construction of homeless shelters, affordable housing, environmental resilience and even busways and bikeways in their neighborhoods. It was Jacobs’ now wealthy and white West Village that shamefully but unsuccessfully sued to stop the 14th Street busway. Similar forces today are marshaling against congestion pricing, meant to ease pollution and traffic in New York, because they, like Moses, still believe “the car is the future.” When people stop affordable housing in their neighborhoods for fear of racial and economic diversification, do we still believe in ceding power to the people? Even progressive stalwarts like Senator Elizabeth Warren and Secretary Pete Buttigieg have shown through their recent housing and transportation plans the need to redress such abuses.
Perhaps it is too much to ask a play to capture these complexities, but we ask no less of The Lehman Trilogy or Hamilton even if they too have substantial historical shortcomings. Manhattan is one of the few U.S. central business districts that is not criss-crossed by highways, much to its economic and environmental success — this work ain’t bean bag, and a play about this work must do better. Shown at the Shed near the northern terminus of the High Line — two projects this author helped plan with outcomes both good and less good — we should ask more of this play because the history it conjures in our teetering world is no less important than plays about our financial collapse or our founders. This history is not a straight line, is totally crazy, and, in an urban epoch demanding climate justice, cannot afford the fury of being addressed from on high.