In interviews, Michael Moore has claimed that The Terms of My Surrender, his debut Broadway foray, is a play. It isn’t. Since he does a fair amount of sitting at a desk and a club chair, it also can’t be labeled a standup routine. A variety show might be closer. But the best term for his intermissionless, 90-minute, predictably political appearance is “Empowerment Seminar.”
Seemingly affable in blue cap, untucked pressed blue shirt, shorts and blue running shoes , the thorny filmmaker-pundit’s repeated message is that everyone is obligated to do whatever possible to rid the country, and the globe, of our fire-and-fury president. The audience, for it part, appears as volatile — in it’s way — as attendees at a Donald Trump rally. Indeed, they are grateful — vociferously so — for the prodding. Moore first, outraged words on stage, therefore, do not shock:
How the fuck did this happen?
Moore can also rip from the headlines with the best of them; at the press preview I attended, he referred to Trump’s threats against North Korea made earlier that day as the horizontal stripes of a proscenium-high American flag were positioned immediately behind him, courtesy of set designer David Rockwell. (From start to finish, Kevin Adams, lighting designer, and Andrew Lazarow, the projections and video designer, effectively played with that overpowering flag.)
Moore’s own fire-and-furying stems from his belief, oft-repeated, that individuals can make all of the difference at a time when doing anything to alter America’s worsening status quo seems futile.
Twice, and in some of Moore’s most intriguing segments, he uses himself as an example. When he was a Flint, MI high school student, he objected to corporal punishment handed out in the corridors. Then he learned that, having just turned 18, he could run for the local school board. He did, prevailed and saw to it that his principal and vice principal were fired. (An accompanying projected photo shows him young and staunch with his fellow board members, who don’t appear too welcoming.)
For his second piece of proof, he recounts his trip with a Jewish friend to Bitburg, Germany, to protest Ronald Reagan’s 1984 laying of a wreath in a Nazi cemetery. He ratchets up suspense on the adventure — I’ll skip the spoiler — but notes it was the one time in his life that looking like a stagehand paid off.
He never completely drops his theme of one-person-lighting-a-candle-in-the-dark. He talks about what trouble he had with HarperCollins when they determined that his anti-George W. Bush book, Stupid White Men, completed shortly before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, was too critical of the president and demanded various changes, rewrites and deletions. Moore refused.
Eventually, Moore heads into a series of geography questions with audience members in a game-show format. Called “Stump the Canadian,” he plucks two contestants — one American, one Canadian — from the audience and attempts to prove that the least informed Canadian knows more about the US than the smartest American. Apparently, he gets his way most nights, but not on the night I was there.
Late in the show, Moore, sitting dejectedly in the club chair, brought out on a winch and changed his upbeat, angry attitude to something more downbeat. When discussing the Bitburg demonstration, he’d briefly reflected on a stop he and his pal made at Bergen-Belsen; now, as a Flint native, he reports at greater length on the town’s lead-poisoned waters. He’s particularly inflamed about 100.000 children being irreparably brain damaged. (Or at least I thought I heard him use that number — I’ll assume that Moore knows what I don’t.) Before leaving the topic, he widens it to say, metaphorically, Je suis Flint.
For Moore’s finale, it isn’t that he saves his best for last but he does throw his considerable self into the finale, making it his most surprising sequence — let’s just say it’s something Moore watchers have never been privy to before. Let me add that first-rate Broadway dancer Noah Racey is credited in the program with movement. Three previously unseen cast members materialize as well.
Perhaps it’s needless to say that Moore’s hoot-and-holler, directed by Michael Mayer, preaches to the converted — it’s what a friend of mine calls an “echo chamber experience.” Even as partisans draw encouragement from Moore, do they think about the people not in the echo chamber, the people unlikely to listen to his message? When I mentioned to another friend, an unsympathetic one, that I’d appreciated much in The Terms of My Surrender, his dismissive response consisted of an eye roll and one sentence: “He’s a nut case.” If so, please pass the nuts.