Theater review by Adam Feldman
Michael Moore is famous for his nerve, but when it comes to The Terms of My Surrender, he has also been candid about his nerves: The show marks his U.S. stage debut, and as he mentioned in our interview a few weeks ago, “For me that makes it thrilling—and dangerous.” Emphasis on “for me”; for the audience, it is neither of those things. In its best moments, The Terms of My Surrender is amusing, informative, even inspiring. But it is also compromised by familiarity, oversimplification and indulgence. Much of the time, Moore’s monologue is not fiery enough to even be hot air. It’s more like warm wind.
As one would expect, Moore—who predicted Donald Trump’s election months before it came to pass—encourages leftists in his audience to correct what he sees as a widespread disempowerment of the majority of voters. Toward the start he calls on Democrats to embrace a kind of 12-step program (minus the God part: “My higher power is Ruth Bader Ginsburg”) and cajoles his spectators into admitting that Trump outsmarted them. But Moore offers few substantive solutions. Most of his suggestions are jokey (standardize phone chargers), pie-in-the-sky (eliminate the electoral college) or vaguely authoritarian (force the children of hawkish politicians to serve in the military).
Surprisingly little of The Terms of My Surrender is devoted to Trump. Mostly it's about the little guy fighting larger powers and winning, with Moore as Exhibit A. Stories from his youth, delivered with charming self-deprecation in style if not content, are genuinely impressive. But while Moore has excelled in his role as a progressive gadfly in popular books and documentaries, onstage he is less assured; he does not yet know how to control his audience, his tone or his time. (On the night I attended, the show lasted nearly two hours without intermission.) Self-pleasure and self-pity creep in, variety-show segments drag on, and by the time he reaches the climax—about poisoned water in his hometown of Flint, Michigan—the crowd is restless. A silly grand finale seems meant to prick the show’s bubble of self-importance, but by that point it is too deflated to yield a satisfying pop.
The message of Moore’s pep talk is that one person can make a difference. Too often, however, it seems as though the one person he means is Michael Moore.
Belasco Theatre (Broadway). By Michael Moore. Directed by Michael Mayer. With Moore. Running time: 1hr 50mins. No intermission. Through Oct 22.