It’s good of Nicholas Hytner to let Londoners see David Hare’s new play before it travels to Broadway where it belongs. Few Brits will know the subject, Robert Moses, an urban planner of the 1920s who built the roads and bridges that gave New Yorkers access to seaside resorts in Long Island.
This is a play for bureaucrats. Nit-picking and box-ticking are the main points of interest. Squiggles on forms. Correct signatures at the bottom of proof-read documents. Hare is copying George Bernard Shaw and his script is a celebration of rhetoric above all other qualities. Dialogue-junkies will enjoy the screeds of quickfire chatter that keep the play motoring along. And like Shaw, Hare omits many of the elements that make a drama feel lifelike. There’s no romance or intrigue, no narrative complexity, no family relationships. We learn that Moses has a wife, Mary, who turns to drink at some point. Why? Was he a monster at home? Certainly he’s arrogant, single-minded and self-centred but so are most alpha males.
One of his worst crimes is to knock down overcrowded apartment blocks and replace them with healthier living quarters for their black and Hispanic tenants. Not much of a sin. And his resorts are intended for car-owners but not for trippers who arrive by coach or train. So he’s a car snob. Hardly unforgiveable. The first act concentrates on his efforts to construct roads between New York and the outer suburbs. In Act Two he has to build a handful of east-west expressways across Manhattan to ease the flow of traffic. So Act Two is a repeat of Act One. But Moses is now 30 years older. Yet his character is unchanged.
He’s challenged by a gang of reformers who want to stop him wrecking their inner-city neighbourhood. To catch them off guard he calls a public meeting for 10 a.m. the very next day. Did that ploy work? We aren’t told. At issue is an urban retreat known as Washington Square Park which Moses plans to bisect with a sunken freeway. Most New Yorkers will know if the park survived. And even Brits can guess. So there’s no suspense built into the narrative at any point. The best parts of the script are to be found in Moses’s swaggering rhetoric. Conservation, he says, is a racket cooked up by women to thwart progress. More wisecracks like that would have helped. We hear that he often sparred with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt but these titans don’t appear on stage. Instead we listen to Moses as he imagines punching Eleanor in her smug, liberal face. Far more effective if he’d said that to her in person.
The only character who can match his rhetoric is the governor of New York, Al Smith, who swears constantly and drinks bourbon all day. But he’s a friend of Moses’s, not an enemy, so their exchanges lack friction. Danny Webb is tremendous value as the witty, hard-talking Smith. And Ralph Fiennes gives Moses a degree of warmth and sympathy that the original may have lacked. But it’s hard to be sure. Perhaps Moses hugged kittens and fed starving hedgehogs when he was alone. The fragments on stage are entertaining enough but too much of this portrait is missing.
The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein is a crazily enigmatic sketch-show. It helps to read the programme first. In 1934, Stein toured America with her spouse, Toklas, and was greeted by crowds who loved The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (which was in fact written by Stein). The play looks at the roll call of drifters, chancers and artists who populated Paris in the 1920s where Stein was a dominant figure. A boozy, sulky Hemingway is the central character. Picasso keeps dashing in and out, making cryptic speeches in a cod-Spanish accent. Joyce, Eliot and Pound appear in cameos. There’s no attempt at novelty or truth in any of these dashed-off portraits. Hemingway slugs whisky and complains that no one recognises his genius. Picasso behaves like a self-indulgent brat. Joyce chatters away in his charming Irish accent. Eliot is reserved and icy. Those who are well acquainted with Paris and the birth of modernism will find nothing new here. First-timers will wonder why these talentless show-offs were ever considered great artists.
The script has been deconstructed so that the mechanics are exposed: Stein and Toklas are each played by two actors. And at the start of the second half they discuss which topics the second half should tackle. It’s very risky to trifle with the audience’s patience like this unless one has first-class material to deliver. This show lacks the goods. The only hard fact I gleaned is that Toklas rhymes with ‘blokeless’, not with ‘sockless’. A bit of a swizz.
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