PATRICK MARMION reviews Straight Line CrazyMarch 25, 2022
My way, or the highway, for Fiennes the megalomaniac: PATRICK MARMION reviews Straight Line Crazy
Straight Line Crazy (Bridge Theatre, London)
Verdict: Fiennes meets his match
Ralph Fiennes had better watch his back. Terrific as he is in David Hare’s new play about New York’s megalomaniac, 20th-century town planner Robert Moses, he’s matched by a blistering turn from Danny Webb, as Moses’s boss, New York State Governor Al Smith. It’s the kind of cameo for which actors would cheerfully kill.
Before that, Hare’s play chugs merrily along, with Fiennes impertinently sweet-talking elderly millionaire Henry Vanderbilt into releasing land to build roads to Long Island’s leisure beaches.
Then it’s back to Moses’s office, where Fiennes’s overbearing New York City Commissioner is giving the runaround to his junior staff.
But when Webb scythes in, as Governor Smith, Fiennes has a real fight on his hands.
Face-off: Danny Webb (left) and Ralph Fiennes in Straight Line Crazy
Thirty minutes of Hare’s greatest writing follow.
Dressed in a grimy pinstripe suit, with a greasy fedora and a fat cigar, Smith — a four-term governor first elected in 1918 — has the blotchy look of the last turkey in the shop. Together, he and Fiennes roast and baste each other, as only good friends can.
Smith denounces Moses’s illegal and unauthorised projects, which he claims are ‘on the side of the angels, but using the methods of the devil’.
Moses purrs that as he makes the minds of multi-millionaires boggle at his projects, their pockets open. To demonstrate his powers, Moses gets Smith on side for his Long Island expressway project, using a combination of flattery and bourbon: cajoling him into a lunch meeting with a judge who will rubber stamp the legal work.
Best seat in the house
Catch Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw in the National Theatre’s 2010 comedy about an ageing London dandy seeking a young wife (Michelle Terry) in the country. (ntathome.com, £9.99 per month or £99.99 per year).
In acting terms, though, it’s Webb who ups the tempo: raising the stakes and revelling in his seamy character with his guttural ‘New Yoik’ accent.
The second half doesn’t hit those heights, alas; but Fiennes remains very watchable as New York’s highwayman of a town planner. He measures Moses out — only sparingly volcanic, lest his man sound dissonant and boorish. He’s even a little cautious and, in selected moments, sheepish. Personally, I’d have liked to have seen Fiennes breathe a little more fire.
After the first half’s clash of titans, the second dwindles into more of a critical essay — together with footnotes delivered by Helen Schlesinger’s character, Jane Jacobs. She is leader of a protest group that defeated Moses’s plans to put an expressway through the middle of Washington Square in the 1950s.
What we crave is a visceral antagonist to rival Smith. What we get is rueful reflection on Moses — a charismatic autocrat who laid 627 miles of expressways and championed the colossal Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge to Staten Island. But he was also notoriously racist; and displaced 250,000 people in poor neighbourhoods who stood in his way.
All that is a little soft-pedalled by Hare in the character of Moses’s well-meaning black employee, Mariah Heller (Alisha Bailey).
Siobhan Cullen is tough and engaging as Moses’s colleague and conscience, Finnuala Connell, although, ultimately, she lacks power over him.
Samuel Barnett, as another colleague, Ariel Porter, who served his life under Moses, resists his boss’s bullying, but winds up reduced to an obedient servant.
Nicholas Hytner’s production is brisk and energetic on Bob Crowley’s pine box set, while George Fenton’s film noir chase music quickens the pulse between scenes.
Nothing, though, quickened my pulse like the Webb-Fiennes face-off in the first half. I would go back for that alone.
Ruth Wilson onstage has an unnerving ability to take you with her into extreme emotional torments, with lethal control.
The double Olivier-winner was a coldly raging Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre, and in Through A Glass Darkly, moments in her rising madness had me actually jolting with shock in my seat.
You are pulled around by her tension and despair in this latest interpretation of Jean Cocteau’s 1930 monologue. It is a woman’s final phone call to her deserting lover.
Wilson, in trackies and hoodie, roams around, phone in hand, for just over an hour.
Ruth Wilson onstage has an unnerving ability to take you with her into extreme emotional torments, with lethal control
There’s a slight time-shift oddity when she laughs at her absurdity in taking the phone to bed. True, that would have been odd in 1930, what with all that landline wiring. But the modern lovelorn woman has an iPhone under her pillow as a matter of course. Just in case he calls back . . .
Director Ivo van Hove sets his plays in bland boxes, like traps or specimen-cases: here Wilson is between a white back wall and a long glass window.
Sometimes she pushes back this patio door and we hear faint traffic: we suspect she may jump. Her body language is taut and desperate.
Sometimes the light changes or music plays. Sometimes her physical desperation rises to a startling crescendo. She says he must take back the dog, because it misses him. Actually, there always was something off-colour about Cocteau’s gleeful parallel of an abandoned woman and an abandoned dog: both yearning for their master’s voice. That male jeer has been annoying women since 1930.
Indeed, misery in love is real; and female misery often seen as helpless, turned inwards. But this revival is basically a test of diva brilliance. As ever, Wilson passes with flying colours. But it’s no kind of fun.
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