You’re wrong if you think Michael Moore is preaching to the choir in his anti-Trump solo, The Terms of My Surrender. The hefty lefty might indeed sermonize from a place of liberal rage, but that doesn’t make the audience at the Belasco a choir. See, a choir does something: It sings. I’m guessing most in attendance (this critic included) have done little to unseat our loathsome POTUS – apart from retweeting Patton Oswalt zingers or posting videos from Charlottesville on Facebook walls. Moore’s show is many things: an anti-fascist rally, therapy for Trump-induced depression, an activist’s memoir. But above all, it’s a call to action. Rev. Moore wants the choir to ditch the robes, march out of church and scream in the street.
A loose-jointed and agreeable tour through his career from accidental teenage firebrand to prophetic icon of the left, The Terms of My Surrender keeps returning to a basic but powerful point: Nothing will change unless you do something. To illustrate this truth, Moore uses himself as an example – yes, that involves some back-patting, but in a charming, self-deprecating way. Jaded, urban viewers who think their disdain for Trump and those who voted for him is enough are actually mistaken. Actions speak louder than tweets.
Emerging from set designer David Rockwell’s stage-spanning wall – which video designer Andrew Lazarow fills with a giant American flag or Trump’s glowering mug – Moore gets straight to the point. “How the fuck did that happen?!” he howls in jovial hysteria. Noting that Trump is only the latest Republican candidate to be elected despite losing the popular vote, he notes that Democrats have “defined a whole new way to win: It’s called losing.”
Over the course of about two hours, Moore doesn’t unduly excoriate his well-heeled audience, but his stunts and screeds illustrate how out of touch we’ve been. He takes a survey of how many of us were devoted fans of The Apprentice (my night: about seven). He hosts a mock game show that pits “the smartest American” against “the dumbest Canadian,” with questions about numbers of states and provinces and names of leading politicians (not pretty). And he does a routine about TSA restrictions for carry-on luggage that involves pulling ridiculous items from a false-bottomed suitcase: electric cattle prod, leaf blower and real Muslim girl (complete with startled expression and head scarf). These are mildly funny bits, but when Moore recounts, in detail, the political corruption and flat-out racism that allowed the poisoning of Flint, Michigan’s drinking water, laughter dies in your throat. As a glimmer of hope, Moore offers handy URLs (5calls.org, everylibrary.org) and basic encouragement about doing something – anything – to alleviate our political nightmare.
Michael Mayer directs with minimal intervention and garlands the monologue with a modest level of gloss and camp. You won’t miss a certain quick costume change by two muscular policemen who take the stage to “arrest” Moore toward the end. There’s a smidgen of dance, a soupçon of singing, but mostly it’s Moore telling us to “sober up” and stop waiting for impeachment. Judged as theater – political or otherwise – The Terms of My Surrender is not high on drama or surprises, but it’s a genial, valedictory piece of civic service. In the long and worthy tradition of Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Bill Maher and others, a truth-telling public figure has a conversation with the nation that goes beyond 140 characters.
David Cote is a theater critic, journalist, playwright and opera librettist based in New York.