Moore is less in ‘Sur­ren­der’

His well-mean­ing ral­ly­ing cry for the anti-Trump crowd is a mis­fire on Broadway.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - CHARLES McNULTY THEATER CRITIC

NEW YORK — Michael Moore looked like a fish out of wa­ter — or was it a deer in head­lights? — at a pre­view of his Broadway show, “The Terms of My Sur­ren­der,” which had its of­fi­cial open­ing at the Be­lasco Theatre on Thurs­day.

Ditch­ing his Rust Belt flan­nel for a sleek, short­sleeve blue but­ton-down, the Oscar-win­ning doc­u­men­tary film­maker (“Bowl­ing for Columbine”) be­trayed an ex­pres­sion of low-level alarm. The stage fright, sub­tle yet un­mis­tak­able, seemed to hit him in waves.

“How the [bleep] did this hap­pen?” he joked, dis­charg­ing some of his anx­i­ety

by con­fronting it head-on.

Don­ald Trump — the rea­son ev­ery­one had gath­ered — con­cen­trated his mind. Video pro­jec­tions of the Amer­i­can flag and Trump thun­der­ing at the Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion set the stage for a New York theater district rally of dis­grun­tled pro­gres­sives.

“Re­peat af­ter me,” Moore com­manded the au­di­ence. “Don­ald Trump out­smarted us all.”

A straight shooter who was is­su­ing Cas­san­dra-like pre­dic­tions on Trump win­ning the elec­tion while me­dia out­lets were ob­sess­ing over Hil­lary Clin­ton’s pri­vate server, he kept re­turn­ing to the mil­lions of Obama vot­ers who went for Trump as though he were try­ing to piece to­gether the mean­ing of a trau­matic dream. Moore wasn’t blam­ing the elec­torate. Trump, he said, knew what peo­ple wanted to hear and put it out there in zingy sound bites. Moore, who knows a thing or two about com­mu­ni­cat­ing to his own base, joked that he had al­ready iden­ti­fied the three Trump vot­ers in the house.

The pro­duc­tion, di­rected by Michael Mayer, could have con­tin­ued in this vein. Broadway the­ater­go­ers opt­ing to see Moore’s show are, af­ter all, pay­ing for an air­ing of their po­lit­i­cal out­rages. They also don’t mind be­ing told that they are coastal elites out of touch with their fel­low cit­i­zens in fly­over coun­try who never missed an episode of “The Ap­pren­tice.”

But the Trump ha­rangue (which was re­ally more of a ram­bling ex­pla­na­tion for the Trump phe­nom­e­non) quickly mor­phed into a kind of sup­port group for dis­heart­ened Democrats, whom Moore pro­posed should start a 12-step group. He was here to in­spire ac­tion rather than to in­dict ar­ro­gant ig­no­rance.

The show con­sists of a se­ries of anec­dotes in which an ev­ery­day per­son abused by the sys­tem over­comes ex­tra­or­di­nary odds to make a dif­fer­ence. Funny enough, the hero of each of these episodes turns out to be Moore him­self.

Moore casts him­self in dif­fer­ent ver­sions of “Mr. Smith Goes to Wash­ing­ton.” He de­liv­ers a speech as a dif­fi­dent high school stu­dent on the Elks Club’s dis­crim­i­na­tory racial prac­tices and sparks a me­dia whirl­wind that calls na­tional at­ten­tion to the issue.

Moore goes to Ger­many with a friend to protest Ron­ald Rea­gan’s con­tro­ver­sial visit to a mil­i­tary ceme­tery in which a num­ber of SS sol­diers are buried and un­furls a ban­ner that seizes the world’s at­ten­tion: “We came from Michi­gan, USA to re­mind you: They killed my fam­ily.”

Af­ter suf­fer­ing cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment as a stu­dent, Moore ran on a lark for a po­si­tion on the school board and was elected as an 18year-old. One story fea­tures a li­brar­ian as free-speech sav­ior, but the ob­ject of her sal­va­tion is Moore’s book “Stupid White Men,” which his pub­lisher wanted to pulp.

Ev­ery story ends in the glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of Michael Moore. The les­son he wants us to take home is a noble one: In­no­cent ide­al­ism can pre­vail only if it holds to what is true and doesn’t suc­cumb to de­spair. But these plucky nar­ra­tives, largely re­cy­cled from his writ­ings and talks, have the monotonous ring of an in­fomer­cial for his brand.

I have no po­lit­i­cal beef with Moore. I have long ad­mired the way he has fought on be­half of work­ing peo­ple. But I found my­self cring­ing at the self-con­grat­u­la­tory ap­plause that would break out when he would ut­ter one of his pieties. And I lost pa­tience with the way he seemed to want both sym­pa­thy for be­ing a vic­tim of the right and adu­la­tion for be­ing the cham­pion of all mankind.

“The Terms of My Sur­ren­der” makes vain ges­tures in the direction of a va­ri­ety show. (“Danc­ing With the Stars,” a silly leit­mo­tif, is both a night­mare and a tempt­ing dream for this capped bear with two left feet.) But Moore isn’t the se­cret vaudevil­lian no one ever sus­pected him of be­ing. His com­edy (he does a bit on the out­landish items the TSA for­bids in carry-on lug­gage) is as galumph­ing as his cur­sory mu­si­cal in­ter­ludes.

Stars have been mak­ing cameos at se­lect per­for­mances. Bryan Cranston dropped by for some chitchat last weekend, but Moore’s awk­ward­ness pre­vented the con­ver­sa­tion from go­ing any­where. He asked Cranston whether the premise of “Break­ing Bad” would have worked if Amer­ica had uni­ver­sal health­care, but all Cranston could do was gig­gle, nod and shrug.

Al­though stand-up and sketch com­edy have thrived un­der Trump’s pres­i­dency, drama pro­voked by his po­lit­i­cal as­cen­dancy has had a spot­tier record. The plays wrestling with the ori­gins and im­pli­ca­tions of Trump’s rise to power — Mike Daisey’s “The Trump Card,” Jon Robin Baitz’s “Vicuña,” Robert Schenkkan’s “Build­ing the Wall” — have been writ­ten in a state of emer­gency.

It would be un­re­al­is­tic to ex­pect play­wrights work­ing on jour­nal­is­tic dead­lines to come up with danc­ing di­alects wor­thy of Ber­tolt Brecht or come­dies of ideas with the bad­minton wit of Ge­orge Bernard Shaw. (Baitz, to his credit, man­ages some funny shenani­gans in a farce that hadn’t yet found its foot­ing when I saw it last fall at the Kirk Dou­glas Theatre.) But these of­fer­ings can have com­mu­nal value with­out en­ter­ing the pan­theon.

One of the rea­sons that “Build­ing the Wall,” which closed early in New York, was a suc­cess in L.A. is that the Foun­tain Theatre wasn’t sell­ing a generic anti-Trump play. The theater was in­stead pro­vid­ing a meet­ing space for lo­cal artists and the­ater­go­ers hun­gry for re­flec­tion on cur­rent dan­gers. Friends and fel­low cit­i­zens gath­ered at the Foun­tain to en­gage the work of artists with an in­vest­ment in a small theater with an ex­ten­sive his­tory of en­velope­push­ing po­lit­i­cal drama.

Daisey’s piece, which I saw last fall at the Broad Stage in Santa Mon­ica in the run-up to the elec­tion, was on a tour, but the pre­vail­ing spirit was one of ac­tivism, not mer­can­til­ism. Daisey was on a mis­sion to get the word out, and he al­lowed Slate to stream his Town Hall per­for­mance on­line.

Broadway is too ex­pen­sive for this kind of com­mu­nal ethos, and though Moore means well, “The Terms of My Sur­ren­der” would be less ob­jec­tion­able if he were driv­ing around the coun­try in a bus and de­liv­er­ing these mono­logues at halls and lodges for $10 a head.

I felt in­creas­ingly alien­ated at the Be­lasco. The les­bian joke about Hil­lary Clin­ton was be­neath him. Did Moore re­ally need to make his cor­pu­lence the ob­ject of ridicule? (I could have done with one fewer laugh lines about the glo­ri­ous design of Ruf­fles potato chips.)

It was painfully ev­i­dent that he wanted to com­mu­ni­cate some­thing of value to his au­di­ence. He seemed to be strug­gling to im­pro­vise some wisdom that would re­deem the night.

In­stead, two male strip­pers came on the stage (dressed at first as po­lice of­fi­cers) and the evening con­cluded in disco may­hem.

Mike Pont Getty Images

MICHAEL MOORE, right, with ac­tor Ju­dah Fried­lan­der dur­ing a Broadway pre­view per­for­mance of Moore’s “The Terms of My Sur­ren­der” in New York.

Mike Pont

FILM­MAKER Michael Moore ap­peared f lus­tered dur­ing a pre­view per­for­mance of his Broadway show “The Terms of My Sur­ren­der.”

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