'The Terms of My Surrender': Theater Review
Filmmaker and activist Michael Moore makes his Broadway debut with this one-man show mixing politics and autobiography.
It seemed easy to predict what Michael Moore’s one-man Broadway show would be like — a two-hour political rally in which the left-wing provocateur/filmmaker would lecture the audience about the evils of Donald Trump and the Republican Party. That prediction turns out to be wrong. The Terms of My Surrender reveals Moore to be a warmly funny and engaging raconteur, presiding over an evening of surprising emotional depths.
Don’t misunderstand me. Trump supporters should probably stay away, not that they were likely to buy tickets anyway. From the moment the baseball-cap wearing Moore steps onstage and forlornly asks, “How the f—k did this happen?” to pained laughter from the audience, it’s clear that he knows he’s in friendly territory. He describes the evening as a “12-step meeting for the Democratic Party,” and he’s not wrong. For liberals attempting to maintain their equilibrium during an administration that seems hellbent on assaulting their values at every turn, the evening essentially qualifies as therapy.
But the show is about much more than simply Trump-bashing, although the president, whose glowering visage at one point is projected in the background like Big Brother incarnate, certainly gets his lumps. Moore does attempt to galvanize the audience into action, telling them they must act as a “swarm of bees” to relentlessly oppose Trump, and encouraging them to call their congressional representatives with the help of the website www.5calls.org (happy to provide the free publicity here).
Smart enough not to fall into the trap of simply preaching to the choir, Moore makes the evening partly autobiographical. He recounts the hilarious story of how he inadvertently became a political activist at age 17 when he wrote an essay lambasting the Elks Club for allowing only Caucasian members. It attracted national media attention and even led to a congressional hearing that resulted in legislation forbidding private organizations from racial discrimination. That the teenage Moore’s love of Ruffles potato chips figures prominently in the proceedings only adds to the fun.
Not long after, Moore received a thrashing from his high school vice principal for the sin of walking through the halls with his shirt untucked. After finding out that all he needed to run for a seat on the local Board of Education was 20 signatures, Moore promptly ran and won (the photo we see of the long-haired teenager posing with his unsmiling fellow members is priceless). Another anecdote, involving his traveling with a friend to Bitburg, Germany, in 1984 to protest Ronald Reagan’s visit to a cemetery containing the graves of dozens of SS members, proves alternately harrowing and amusing, with Moore again providing photographic evidence of his youthful political engagement.
But the evening, cleverly staged by Michael Mayer, is not just an illustrated lecture. It has a vibrantly theatrical, variety-show atmosphere, complete with a stand-up comedy routine in which Moore points out the absurdities of TSA screenings (featuring a riotous sight gag) and a mock game-show in which he quizzes a U.S. and a Canadian audience member about their respective knowledge of each other’s countries.
There’s also a segment involving a different guest at every performance; on the evening I attended it was actor Bryan Cranston, who engaged in a spirited conversation with Moore about the fractured political landscape. Providing more details of the finale would spoil the surprise, but suffice it to say that by the end of the show Moore has discovered his inner song-and-dance man.
The evening eventually takes a more somber turn when Moore describes, in disturbing detail, the many death threats and violent assaults he’s endured in recent years. And he waits until shortly before the end to fully unveil his fury, with an alternately blistering and sorrowful diatribe about the contamination of the water in Flint, Michigan, that resulted from the GOP governor’s decision to tap the local river as a source.
But Moore is too savvy to end on a down note. The joyous finale, which again relies on the element of surprise, sends the audience out on a high. Despite its title, The Terms of My Surrender isn’t just about Michael Moore. Its theme, which he hammers home again and again, is that “one person can make a difference.” By the time you walk out of this inspiring and unexpectedly entertaining show, you’ll feel like you can as well.
Venue: Belasco Theatre, New York
Writer-performer: Michael Moore
Director: Michael Mayer
Scenic designer: David Rockwell
Costume designer: Jeff Mahshie
Lighting designer: Kevin Adams
Sound designer: Brian Ronan
Projection & video designer: Andrew Lazarow
Presented by IMG Original Content, Carole Shorenstein Hays