Michael Moore’s solo show, “The Terms of My Surrender,” comes as close to being a campaign rally as anything you are likely to see on Broadway – or anywhere else, for that matter, save an actual one. Taking the stage of the Belasco Theatre to the kind of frenzied adoration currently being enjoyed on Broadway only by Bette Midler, the liberal filmmaker and author flings at his audience plenty of red meat dripping with contempt for Donald Trump, the country’s current “president,” as Moore puts it, fingers winking air quotes. And yet this shaggy but enjoyable evening, an autobiographical solo show spliced with a rabble-rousing call to arms against the reigning political regime, contains more surprises – and more funny diversions – than I expected.
I feared worse. Moore, is, ahem, not exactly known for the subtlety of his rhetoric. He has been a fuming arch-liberal and a flame-throwing polemicist ever since he first splashed down in American culture with the documentary “Roger & Me,” his merciless vivisection of the commercial and political forces that hollowed out his hometown, Flint, Mich., along with much of the rest of the so-called rust belt. His other movies, including “Bowling for Columbine” and “Fahrenheit 9/11,” have similarly blended facts with forceful personal commentary, sometimes in dubious or unwieldy proportions. (He has been accused of bending the truth and willfully ignoring nuances by some critics.)
When news broke that Moore would storm Broadway with a show about the current state of the nation (breaking news: in disarray), I braced myself for an evening of loud-mouthed preaching to the long-since-converted, along with the usual snark-strafing that has filled the late-night talk shows since Trump was elected.
The first twenty minutes or so of Moore’s show does indeed fit that particular bill. In front of a massive, imposing wooden wall onto which variously colored versions of the American flag are projected – a clever bit of cultural reappropriation, from designer David Rockwell – Moore begins on an emotional note his audience will surely sympathize with, asking, “How the fuck did this happen?”
We are then treated to a brief hailstorm of statistics about the sorry state of the nation and the sorrier state of the Democratic party. Moore reminds us that in six of the seven last presidential elections the Democrats won the popular vote but did not always win the White House. He notes that Republicans hold a majority of governorships by a wide margin. He gives a shout-out to Ruth Bader Ginsburg – always a surefire applause line. He gives a plug to an app that helps you make five phone calls a day to beat back the conservative tide. (It’s called 5calls.org, in case you’re not seeing the show.) He slings some witty wisecracks, lamenting that “no good idea” ever came out of Bedminster, New Jersey, where Trump is currently vacationing (and chest-thumping the country to the brink of nuclear war between rounds of golf). The mood in the room is similar to a revival meeting, replete with call-and-response segments.
Nearly two hours of this (without intermission) could be punishing for even the most ardent anti-Trumpian. We do not lack for slashing humorous takedowns of the current administration, after all. Fortunately Moore, who wrote the show, and his experienced director, Michael Mayer, soon pivot into more diverse territory, although the through-line – we must resist! – never recedes far into the background. The show mostly evolves into the tale of the birth of an activist, name of Moore, whose life is presented as a template for how a single man or woman can make a powerful social and political impact.
Moore’s initiation into one-man activism began when he was a teenager invited to attend a gathering of smart kids interested in government. He was in fact more interested in the vending machine down the hall dispensing salty snacks. But he decides to enter a speech contest, galvanized by learning that the Elks organization, which had sponsored the contest, did not admit African-Americans – in Michigan, in 1971. He gives a hot denunciation, and soon is fielding calls from national news organizations.
A firebrand is born. Also related with a nice blend of humor and earnestness is the story of his decision, at 18, to run for the local school board after being disciplined for having his shirt come untucked – a campaign he won, to the dismay of the rest of the board. This sounds like something from a Disney Channel movie, but Moore provides documentary evidence in the form of a photo of him, wide-tied and long-haired, in the company of his fellow board members, all decades older, looking grim and befuddled. When then-President Ronald Reagan made the controversial decision to visit a German cemetery where Nazis were buried, Moore and a Jewish friend snuck onto the scene and unfurled a furious banner.
Moore has a funny riff about the absurdity of a Travel Security Administration brochure he happened upon at the airport (I doubt he happened upon it, but never mind). Among the 59 items the TSA “kindly suggests” travelers leave out of their carry-on luggage are dynamite, garden shears, cattle prods and hand grenades. Good to know, but not exactly germane to Moore’s overarching conceit.
More on target, and downright hilarious (in a kinda sad way), is a mock game show called “Stump the Canadian.” Earlier in the show Moore had expounded upon the notion that so many Americans vote against their interests due to the crippled state of the educational system. To prove his point, he calls to the stage a smarty-pants American (at the show I saw, a Sarah Lawrence student) and then seeks out the “dumbest” Canadian in the audience. They are pitted against each other with questions about the two countries. At the preview I attended, the American was the surprise winner – Moore observed that this was a first – although she was a bit off when asked how many provinces and territories there are in Canada. (Answer: not 36.)
The bit is vintage Moore: scorchingly funny, but also just a little bit cruel. In some passages, as when Moore suggests a celebrity Democrat run for president and, at the urging of someone in the audience (a plant, I suspect), gives a mock-announcement of his platform, Moore’s healthy appetite for the spotlight – something he has in common with his arch-foe, as it happens – becomes a little too prominent. (Getting booed when you’re collecting an Oscar? Cry me a river.) He is more endearing when his natural gift for self-deprecation is slathered over his material, like nacho cheese on chips.
Mostly that is the Moore we meet here. His film persona, the goofy comic pest with a serious mission, translates with surprising ease to the stage. He has, of course, been popular on the speaking circuit for some time, so his rumpled imp act (the inevitable baseball cap, slouchy pants) has no doubt been well-honed. But it feels authentic, and Moore’s playfulness comes through more strongly here than it does in his movies. He has a veteran standup comic’s natural sense of how to finesse a gag. And while the show has its darker passages – the water crisis in Flint makes for dismaying listening – “The Terms of My Surrender” sustains a mood of buoyancy and hope, or at least happy righteousness, that surprised me. I expected a lot of thundering rhetoric – and didn’t come away unsated. I certainly didn’t expect to be singing along to “Do-Re-Mi.” █