It’s clear that most playwrights have never spent any time working in an office. They consistently underestimate the severe decorum that restricts subordinates from going off on their boss in that dramatic fashion playwrights just can’t resist. Those explosions occasionally happen between the cubicles, but they tend to be followed by a quick visit to the human resources department. Lucy Prebble and James Graham got office mores and politics all wrong in their plays “Enron” and “Ink,” respectively, and now it is David Hare’s turn to muck up professional behavior with his latest, “Straight Line Crazy,” which opened Wednesday at The Shed after a run at the London Theatre Company.
Hare does manage to get one office subordinate almost right, and that’s a toady named Ariel Porter (Adam Silver) who basically tells Robert Moses (Ralph Fiennes) precisely what the powerful New York masterbuilder wants to hear. As any intern would know at first glance, Moses is not a boss to be confronted or challenged in any way. He not only bulldozes entire neighborhoods in New York City and Long Island to build roads (among other things); he uses that same drive and ambition to demolish any human being breathing any of his oxygen.
Even the honorable Al Smith (Danny Webb) doesn’t get what he wants in showdowns with the almighty Moses. For example, the New York State governor (1923-28) wanted a train built to take people from the city to the new Jones Beach on Long Island. Moses, on the other hand, wanted only people in cars to enjoy the park, and even constructed the overpasses and roads to prevent buses from making the trip. The urban planner’s logic was simple: When Jones Beach opened in 1929, white people owned cars, and people of color did not.
Porter is a quick learner for a fictional character. After making the mistake of moving a road a few yards to prevent a wealthy man’s trees from being cut down, Porter quickly understands that “compromise” is not a word tolerated by his boss. In Act 2, reduced by illness to working from a wheelchair, Porter consistently refuses to take a position when two other subordinates dare to go head to head with Moses. Hare delivers that office dynamic to the tee.
Beyond Porter, I had to wonder, having worked in an office for over 40 years, why the fictional character Mariah Heller (Alisha Bailey) had ever been hired by the Moses office, much less lasted there beyond the 10:30 coffee break. Heller’s family had been displaced from their home when Moses created the Cross Bronx Expressway, begun in 1948. While she has enough career savvy to keep that family factoid a secret (for a few minutes of stage time), Heller’s attitude is as defiant as it is loud. Hare clearly expects us to cheer her on; instead, he merely exposes his own threadbare technique in telling a cogent story.
Much more dishonest is one of the play’s other fictional characters, Finnuala Connell (Judith Roddy), who plays Moses’s right-hand woman for 30 years. She is essentially the enabler-in-chief until, hiring Heller and empathizing with the new employee, she ends up not only damning Moses’s entire career but labeling him an uncaring husband (for ignoring his alcoholic wife) and an uncaring boss (for never inquiring about Porter’s health problems). Again, my office experience got in the way: I’ve seen reporters berated for not covering stories because they were in the hospital or caring for a dying parent. To my jaded eyes, Moses appears to be a very reasonable boss. (Ditto Meryl Streep’s Amanda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada.”) On one level, it’s fun to see a powerful jerk like Moses get his comeuppance. His downfall arrives when he tries to run a highway through Washington Square Park and instead gets run over by protesters. On another level, we have to wonder where the suddenly hyper-critical Finnuala Connell has been all these years, except as a figment of the playwright’s duplicitous imagination.
Regarding the brawl in Washington Square Park that took place in 1955, the protesters were greatly aided by the real-life reporter Jane Jacobs (Helen Schlesinger), author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Here, Hare turns Jacobs into a victim of knee-jerk liberalism at its worst when she muses that what Moses did to one neighborhood with the Cross Bronx Expressway rich people did to Greenwich Village and SoHo with their gentrification.
Nicholas Hytner and Jamie Armitage’s blunt direction emphasizes the incongruities implicit in the situations in which the actors find themselves trapped. They and Hare are slightly less boxed in during the big confrontation between Moses and Smith. Unlike all the scenes with subordinates, these two characters carry equal weight. In the role of the governor, Webb delivers a remarkable impersonation of Eli Wallach whenever that actor wasn’t impersonating a Mexican bandit. His governor is both folksy and tough, and Webb uses the one trait to enhance the other.
It would be nice to report that Fiennes delivers an impersonation of Walter Huston or Lee J. Cobb or George C. Scott – actors who knew how to play American titans without showing us their technique. (Nowadays, Brian Cox or Bryan Cranston would be perfect casting.) Fiennes not only sweats, he relies on a few stock poses to deliver what he has called “male toxicity.” His best gimmick is to replicate Richard Nixon’s gripping of his narrow shoulders with tight fists. Was Nixon trying to prevent himself from exploding? Fiennes is good at conveying that kind of moral and physical desiccation. More often, he tries to go big, and repeatedly sticks out his pelvis and hangs his arms down to dry so that we see not the palms but the back of his hands, which sometimes rest on his buttocks. The pose gives him size but more often looks like that new deodorant has given him an underarm rash.
Perhaps Moses went around, as Fiennes does here, shouting at everybody he ever met. Then again, he didn’t have Hare writing him aphorisms that attack (in the following order) America, capitalism and democracy. Whenever Fiennes lets go with one of these witty one-liners, he gazes over the audience to accept the laughter and, all too often, the applause. Captured on YouTube, Moses spoke in a very measured cadence with a hard American accent. In 1994’s “Quiz Show,” Fiennes delivered arguably one of the worst American accents since Laurence Olivier wrestled with Big Daddy in a 1976 TV version of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” In “Straight Line Crazy,” Fiennes manages to at least sound mid-Atlantic but moored a few miles off the coast. He keeps elongating all the wrong syllables for anyone who grew up in one of the boroughs not inhabited by William F. Buckley.