Review: Michael Moore, Bragging on Broadway, in ‘The Terms of My Surrender’

By on Aug 11, 2017

That’s true: “The Terms of My Surrender” is not organized well enough to be either of those things. Certainly it falls short of offering seriously useful ideas about how individuals can make a difference — as Mr. Moore, drawing on his own biography, insists they can. Details are scant. Run for school board, he recommends. Be Rosa Parks. Download 5calls.org, an app that promises to “turn your passive participation into active resistance.”

This show did that pretty well for me, even without the app. I actively resisted plenty of material that might otherwise be amenable to me politically. Some of it took the form of hokey set pieces that fizzled, such as a demonstration of what the T.S.A. now prohibits passengers from taking onboard a plane: hedge clippers, dynamite, Muslims. Particularly feeble (and sour) was a game show involving audience members selected to prove Mr. Moore’s thesis that the “dumbest Canadian” is more knowledgeable about the world than the “smartest American.” Almost any savvy talk show host does this kind of material much better.

Worse, though, is Mr. Moore’s collection of “and then I annoyed” war stories, many of them (like the one about the Elks crusade) told previously. I don’t complain that he is always the hero of these stories; on Broadway you don’t deduct points for narcissism. What is dispiriting is that many of the targets, however deserving, are so old and obvious, including Ronald Reagan (for his 1985 Bitburg blunder) and Glenn Beck (for his 2005 radio monologue exploring the free speech implications of threatening to assassinate Mr. Moore). The problems we face today are much more complex and intractable.

Photo

Mr. Moore before an image of President Donald J. Trump in “The Terms of My Surrender.”

Credit
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

But even when Mr. Moore turns his attention to more recent and generally compelling matters, as in a long, impassioned segment about the water crisis in Flint, Mich., you sense that he is enjoying his dudgeon too much. His tendency to cut factual corners to smooth the storytelling, as in that Flint segment, doesn’t help. Several times I was reminded of the criticisms that have dogged him, from the right and the left, throughout the second half of his career as a polemicist. In particular I recalled Christopher Hitchens’s accusation that Mr. Moore’s 2004 documentary, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” reflected a kind of “moral frivolity.”

Frivolity, moral or otherwise, would be most welcome here. But for theatergoers expecting anything theatrical from “The Terms of My Surrender,” the evening, directed as if with hands thrown up in resignation by Michael Mayer, will prove fairly grim. Mr. Moore, awkward and often tongue-tied, is not a natural stage creature. There is a script, but it seems to be more of a reconfigurable scaffold, changing from night to night. (At the performance I saw on Tuesday evening, the interview segment — which had earlier featured guests like Representative Maxine Waters of California and Morgan Spurlock — was cut.) A lot of the material is thus delivered semi-impromptu, with all the stutters and longueurs that entails.

To make up for this Mr. Moore affects a cute, common-man delivery that fools no one, though the crowd at the Belasco, including a few shills, claps for almost all of the bait he tosses. Some toss bait back, including vulgar imprecations against the president that are hardly distinguishable from the cries of “Lock her up” that horrify us in other settings.

Unsavory elements of Mr. Moore’s persona and material slip by almost unnoticed in such an echo chamber. One icky bit, meant to demonstrate the limits of free speech, finds him calling (or pretending to call) the office of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York and, using Mr. Beck’s 2005 script, threatening to kill him. In several other places, Mr. Moore’s valorization of the Midwestern working class from which he hails cuts against his claim that ordinary Americans, like the ones who voted for Mr. Trump, are stupid. “America,” he says, has been “dumbed down and now can’t think.”

These moments suggest a thinking failure of his own: a failure to examine the inapt moral equivalences and disguised elitism inherent in his brand of provocation. The result is as confusing politically as it is theatrically. Audiences hoping for a bit of feel-good liberal therapy, let alone a good show, may be disappointed to find that Mr. Moore isn’t very interested in them. He’s not preaching to the choir: He’s bragging to it.

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