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Theatre in Review: The Terms of My Surrender (Belasco Theatre)

Michael Moore. Photo: Joan Marcus

"How the f--k did this happen?" So asks Michael Moore at the top of his new Broadway show, a political pep rally-cum-revival meeting for liberals still in shock over the November election. "This," of course, is the election of President Donald J. Trump, whose talent for creating chaos has had two thirds of the country -- and most of the world -- reeling ever since Inauguration Day. The Terms of My Surrender is a free-form, ripped-from-the-headlines affair, marked by a wild, anything-goes vibe. Some nights, a celebrity guest may turn up for an interview. The night before I attended, Moore concluded the show by shipping the audience, on buses, to Trump Tower for an impromptu protest on the occasion of Trump's first night back at his home base since moving to the White House. Early on, Moore points to a box seat draped in bunting, noting that it is being saved in the event that the president feels like dropping in one night. It's a measure of the star's madcap charisma that such an idea seems only mildly unlikely.

Make no mistake about it: Moore has plenty of tough love to hand out to his fans. Describing his show as a twelve-step meeting for members of the disaffected left -- with Ruth Bader Ginsburg substituting for the Higher Power -- he begins with a hard truth: Trump is president and likely to remain so for the next three and a half years -- and he might even manage a second term. Recalling that he accurately predicted a Trump victory last summer, Moore excoriates the Democratic Party's complacency, declaring that it has found "a whole new way to win -- it's called losing." Trying to explain what remains incomprehensible to everyone in the Belasco, he reminds them there's "a large chunk of America between the Hudson River and La Cienega Boulevard" who have spent the last decade or so watching The Apprentice and liking what they see.

For those who wondered how a personality best known for his humorous film polemics would fare onstage, Moore is an adept standup comic. Prowling the stage, looking like a cross between a garden gnome and the crazy uncle who hasn't left the attic for twenty years, he wisecracks with élan -- speculating on the possibility of impeachment, he asks, "Do we try him as an adult?" -- earning his fair share of laughs. A routine about the TSA rule book ends with a sting, thanks to a sight gag I won't reveal. He also brings two audience members up on stage for a mock game show called "Stump the Canadian" -- which, at the performance I attended, didn't entirely work out as planned, since the American contestant proved less ignorant about the US and its northern neighbor than his Canadian opponent, thus dulling the point that too many of us are self-interested yahoos.

Mostly, however, Moore is man with a mission: to rouse his fellow citizens to political action, from the simple act of calling one's representatives to running for electoral office. His point, that an individual can make an enormous difference, is illustrated by a series of episodes from his own life: a speech, made at Boys State, denouncing the racist policies of the Elks, which won him an award -- sponsored by the Elks; his successful run for the Flint school board, while still in high school; a gonzo protest raid on Ronald Reagan at Bitburg that only lasted long enough to earn a hostile stare from Nancy; and a contretemps with the publisher Harper Collins in which an attempt at pulping one of his books was thwarted by a legion of angry librarians. Even if most of these stories depend on the law of unintended consequences, they are, nonetheless, as inspiring as they are amusing.

Moore was smart enough to sign up a team of theatrical professionals for his Broadway debut, which has a pleasing slickness: David Rockwell's set, backed by a white wall bearing the imprint of the American flag, looks like a Jasper Johns painting with its colors filled in by Andrew Lazarow's projections; Lazarow also provides archival imagery of Moore at different stages of his career and game-show imagery for Stump the Canadian. Kevin Adams' lighting layers in some attractive color washes. Brian Ronan's sound design is both clear and punchy.

All of this is orchestrated with admirable skill by the director Michael Mayer; however, he would do well to trim about ten minutes from the running time. Then again, one suspects that The Terms of My Surrender is a constantly evolving entity -- the performance I attended included fresh material about Trump's disastrous press conferences regarding the Charlottesville horrors. And I wouldn't want to lose a word of the climactic section, in which Moore, calling up a fury worthy of an Old Testament prophet, excoriates Michigan governor Rick Snyder and his cronies for their criminal recklessness in meddling with the water system of Flint, exposing an entire generation of children -- most of them black and all of them poor -- to lead in their drinking water. It's a powerful reminder that, for all the gossip and backbiting that now informs our public discourse, politics remains a deadly serious affair.

"Can a Broadway show take down a sitting president?" That's the question posed by the advertising copy for The Terms of My Surrender. Sadly, the answer is no; still, it can inspire citizens to fight back, and only good things can come of that. As you will have long since concluded, this is designed to be an assembly of the faithful, and any member of the right wing who attends is clearly a masochist. Then again, the gospel he is preaching is almost entirely taken from the Tea Party playbook; only the intentions have been changed. In any case, the message is clear: This isn't over. Not by a long shot. -- David Barbour

(21 August 2017)

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