“The only hope until we kick him out of office is to discombobulate him,” Michael Moore says near the beginning of his playful, pointed and partisan one-man show, as he stands in front of an American flag superimposed with a billboard-sized photograph of Donald Trump. But The Terms of My Surrender, which marks Moore’s Broadway debut, is not likely to discombobulate the 45th president of the United States, and not just because Trump probably won’t accept Moore’s invitation to see the show for free, which Moore offers in the Playbill in English and Russian.
No more than half an hour in the two-hour show at the Belasco has anything to do with Trump.
The Terms of My Surrender is not just an anti-Trump screed. It is also an oddly eclectic mix of sharp stand-up comedy routine, sketchy sketch comedy, memoir, parody political rally, activist exhortation, parody game show, actual talk show, prank call show, even a strip-tease (don’t ask, I won’t tell – except to say that Moore has an un-credited supporting cast.)
In format, Michael Moore’s live show has little in common with his funny but focused documentaries about specific issues, starting with the 1989 “Roger & Me” (about General Motors abandonment of Flint, Michigan and the downside of globalization), and including “Bowling for Columbine” (gun violence), “Sicko” (the American health care system), and “Fahrenheit 9/11” (the aftermath of the September 11th attacks and the Bush administration.)
During the 2016 Presidential election campaign, Moore performed a one-man show in Ohio, and released it as a film entitled “Michael Moore in Trumpland.” The Terms of My Surrender is not that show; neither is it “Fahrenheit 11/9,” Moore’s planned documentary about Trump. It differs markedly from the superficially similar Trump takedown on stage, Mike Daisey’s The Trump Card, which was also a humorous one-man show but focused more exclusively on then-candidate Trump.
In his best films, Moore melds his puckish sense of humor and stunt-happy grandstanding with a passionate accumulation of facts to illuminate an important issue. His one-man show on Broadway is too diffuse to fit Moore’s usual formula. It’s like a scattershot variety show. But the puckish sense of humor will be enough for most of his fans, the driving engine behind an unusual but surprisingly satisfying entertainment.
Director Michael Mayer helps The Terms of My Surrender along by moving Moore around the stage and giving him several sets (or suggestions of a set) to play around in, such as a desk or a living room or the podium with bunting at a political rally, or, memorably, a game show set, where Moore pits “the dumbest Canadian” against “the smartest American” (both chosen from the audience) in a contest over their knowledge of geography. A team of Broadway designers and a choreographer provide polish, an occasional dose of only half-joking razzmatazz and even “movement direction” to a proud and permanent schlub of a guy who has proven himself time and again a natural performer and comedian but not a trained, professional one.
Moore tells personal anecdotes that chronicle his activism, starting at age 17, when he took on the Elks Club, entering their essay contest and blasting them for being a whites-only organization, which got him onto network news. Most of Moore’s personal anecdotes share a particular arc – how he challenged the status quo and scored an unprecedented win. At age 18, he ran for the local school board on a platform of firing the principal and vice principal of his high school – and won, becoming the youngest person elected to office in the United States; the board also subsequently fired the principal and vice principal. He makes these stories funny, but would it be impolitic to observe that their underlying self-aggrandizement bears some similarity to Trump’s incessant boasts? The partisan audience would surely respond: At least Moore has legitimate accomplishments to boast about – and you need not be a partisan to find many of Moore’s stories both amusing and inspiring.
Yet, let’s face it, The Terms of My Surrender is unlikely to draw a lot of Fox News viewers. Moore acknowledges how polarizing a figure he is by describing for us the death threats he’s received, a sobering litany. The performance I attended often felt like a gathering of the likeminded there to heal their bruises for the battle ahead. The audience applauded nearly everything Moore said. Most nights, Moore invites a celebrity guest and chats with him for about five minutes. My night it was Bryan Cranston. Other guests reportedly have been Keith Olbermann and Rep. Maxine Waters. The casual chat felt much like a similar shtick from Oh, Hello – except with progressive politics as the main course rather than a tuna fish sandwich.
Although Trump is only one of the subjects of The Terms of My Surrender, Moore does more than joke at the president’s expense, making an effort to explain his success (see video excerpt below): “In between the Hudson River and La Cienega Boulevard, a lot of people loved him, because he knew how to keep it simple, stupid; right?”
Moore’s most serious and most moving moment is the story he tells of how the governor of Michigan poisoned the water in Moore’s hometown of Flint, causing “permanent, irreparable brain damage” to the children in the city. Terrorists haven’t figured out how to poison an entire American city, Moore says: It took the Republican Party to do that.
The Terms of My Surrender is on stage at the Belasco Theatre (111 West 44th Street, between Sixth and Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10036) through October 22, 2017.
Details and tickets
The Terms of My Surrender . Written and performed by Michael Moore . Directed by Michael Mayer . Set design by David Rockwell, costume design by Jeff Mahshie, lighting design by Kevin Adams, sound design by Brian Ronan, video and projection design by Andrew Lazarow, movement direction by Noah Racey . Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.