Straight Line Crazy
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Writer: David Hare
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Siobhán Cullen, Samuel Barnett, Alisha Bailey, Danny Webb, Alana Maria, Helen Schlesinger
Seen on: 8.9.2022
Content Note: (critical treatment of) racism
Robert Moses (Ralph Fiennes) is a city planner, and an ambitious one to boot. When he has a plan, he will do everything to see it made reality, and he is usually successful. Starting his career with pissing off the rich folk on Long Island, making the island accessible to the poor people of New York, his career later turns to plowing down “slums” and disregarding the Black community. But when it comes to Washington Square, his methods may finally catch up to him.
Straight Line Crazy is a powerful portrait of a thoroughly despicable man. While that’s always very good, it’s not always particularly entertaining.
I hadn’t heard about Robert Moses before this play (and I probably wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for the play). Knowing about him now, I can honestly say that it’s a good thing that he is by now kind of infamous. Because his racist policies screwed a lot of people over and the play makes that very clear. Like it makes clear that it was up to Black women (for the most part) to fix everything, as it so often is.
It is definitely not surprising, but still impressive (in a bad way) to see how far white men can come if they are simply loud and rude enough. In a change of the usual narrative surrounding (male) assholes with a certain intelligence, this play definitely doesn’t idolize Moses for being an asshole (contrary to a million Sherlock Holmes adaptations, or Dr House, or …) but rather shows that their inconsiderate, obstinate narrow-mindedness is precisely their downfall. In the beginning, we may still cheer for him not taking shit from the rich guy who doesn’t want to share “his” beach with the “plebs”, but really, he was an asshole then, as he is an asshole when he tries to raze down Black neighborhoods for a highway.
Given that the play is so much about race and racism, it could have centered Black voices a little more. But in the end, it is the Robert Moses play, and the most meaningful relationships are all between white characters – Moses and his employees Fionnula (Siobhán Cullen) and Ariel (Samuel Barnett). (I guess that’s one of the ways it’s still notable a play by white people.)
Ralph Fiennes is really fantastic, bringing a brash and violent loudness to Moses that must be absolutely exhausting to keep up for near to three hours. It’s definitely exhausting to watch, impressive as it is, and is one of the reasons why the play isn’t always fun. But it doesn’t have to be fun to be good, and that it is, very much.
Summarizing: not always easy, but worth the effort.