Michael Moore: The Terms of My Surrender
The liberal filmmaker and provocateur does his dance on Broadway.
"I'm sorry to be the buzzkill here so early on, but I think Trump is gonna win," activist filmmaker Michael Moore said on Real Time With Bill Maher last July. Members of the live studio audience gasped and jeered in disbelief. He explained his reasoning in a blog post the next day, in which he predicted with eerie prescience that Trump's path to victory went through the rust belt, specifically the states of Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin (all carried by then-candidate-now-President Trump in November). "You are living in a bubble," the Michigan native wrote to his liberal readership, letting them know just how unaware they were of the level of discontent in the country. Considering how right he was about everything, Moore deserves our attention.
His Broadway debut, The Terms of My Surrender (now playing a limited engagement at the Belasco Theatre), seems to promise yet another dose of the harsh truth, and perhaps tactics for fighting back in Trump's America. The show's tagline tantalizingly asks, "Can a Broadway show take down a sitting President?" What better place to pierce through the bubble of liberal delusion than Broadway, realm of Hamilton and routine standing ovations for Hillary Clinton? Unfortunately, it is a promise that remains unfulfilled in this disappointingly inoffensive summer solo show.
Written and performed by Moore, The Terms of My Surrender takes the form of a mildly amusing stand-up routine. Moore sounds off on politics, leaving room for improvised commentary on the day's news. He falls back on a hoary comedic subjects in the scripted moments, like when he illustrates our perennial unhappiness with air travel through prop comedy, displaying some of the more ludicrous items prohibited by a T.S.A. brochure. This may be a way of demonstrating in both form and content that we Americans have more in common than we think: Whether you grew up in Clinton or Trump country, you probably don't have much love for the T.S.A. As an Ohio native, I can also attest to our enduring love of Gallagher — although the laughter seems more tepid in New York.
That's one of Moore's more successful bits. A trivia gameshow segment that pits an allegedly dim Canadian audience member against "the smartest" American in the house is meant to prove just how worldly our neighbors to the north are, but it only makes us wonder how smart a person could be to subject herself to potential humiliation in front of a Broadway audience. It doesn't help that Moore proves to be a poor quizmaster, unwittingly telegraphing the answers during a less than electrifying lightning round.
Creator of films like Fahrenheit 9/11 and Sicko, Moore has made a career on such theatrical stunts of dubious intellectual value, meant to push a cherished bromide of the Left (Canadians are smarter than Americans) without making us think more deeply about the subject. Perhaps this is why veteran director Michael Mayer seems to have left Moore to his shtick, even when it feels painfully under-rehearsed.
At least David Rockwell's set is handsomely inviting: A desk, a lectern, and a brown leather armchair roll in on platforms, helping to make Moore's style more or less intimate as the moment demands. Projection designer Andrew Lazarow opens the show with an arresting montage from the 2016 RNC, underscored by Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana." It perfectly encapsulates the hyperventilation of American liberals at the rise of Trump, a reaction the President's supporters crave like a particularly addictive narcotic. For his part, Jeff Mahshie does an excellent job costuming Michael Moore to look like Michael Moore.
Actually, the autobiographical portion of the show is the most effective, when the performer tells us how he became the Michael Moore many liberals love, and even more conservatives love to hate. There's the story about how a teenage Moore entered a speech contest sponsored by the Elks Club, only to deliver a stinging tirade about the club's racially exclusionary membership policy (he won the contest). Then there was the time Moore ran for his local Board of Education on a platform of firing a physically abusive vice principal. Moore won the election by capturing the youth vote and, at 18, became the youngest elected official in the United States. We listen to these stories as we would to those of a beloved uncle whose disregard for convention and entrenched power has led to a fascinating life. These segments may resemble a self-serving memoir recited live onstage, but it's a great read.
Still, if the lesson of Moore's life is to take risks and speak truth to power, he doesn't apply it to this endeavor. The Terms of My Surrender delivers liberal catnip to an audience eager to wallow in it. No one walks away with a real plan to take down a sitting president, and we are left with only the vaguest notion of what kind of bravery it will require to wrest our country back from the vice-like grip of politics as reality TV. Undoubtedly, many theatergoers will relish the experience of having their beliefs reinforced in a pep rally atmosphere, but one wonders how one can dictate terms of surrender when one hasn't even bothered to put up a real fight.