Theater Review: ‘The Terms of My Surrender’ at Belasco Theater

By Jonathan Spira on 3 October 2017
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If Michael Moore doesn’t end up running for president or directing another movie, he may have a future as a late-night television talk show host. That’s the impression I was left with after spending two hours, without an intermission, in the (studio) audience of “The Terms of My Surrender.”

The filmmaker cum activist started his career, he tells us, by running for the local school board on a platform to have the principal and assistant principal of his school fired after the latter administered a spanking because Moore’s shirt wasn’t tucked in. Enough members of the establishment ran against Moore that his victory was ensured. His films, in particular “Roger & Me,” show a strong moral compass. He also turns out to be surprisingly witty and engaging.

So why is Moore on Broadway? It’s clear by the reaction of theatergoers that he’s preaching to the choir but it’s also clear he feels that those who didn’t vote for Donald Trump in the November election aren’t doing anything to prevent a reoccurrence. It’s also clear that he’s not trying to hold a political rally, although his feelings about Mr. Trump (dangerously incompetent, exceptionally narcissistic, and pathologically untruthful) are never far from the foreground.


One thing he is trying to do throughout the evening is to make the point that individuals can make a difference. Unfortunately, he doesn’t provide many details beyond some autobiographical anecdotes. “Run for the school board,” he suggests. “Follow Rosa Parks’ example.” One particularly amusing story is his account of how he became an accidental political activist at the age of 17, bored at a model government event, entered a contest sponsored by the Elks Club by writing the winning essay which lambasted the Elks Club for only allowing white members, something he had been exposed to by his father’s refusal to join the Elks Club at home. His essay made the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite and resulted in legislation that forbade private organizations from engaging in racial discrimination.

Towards the end of the evening, he suggests using an app called 5calls, which helps people voice their opinion to their elected representatives but that comes off partially like a commercial for the app.

Where Moore does truly engage is in his role as late night talk show host. He has a desk, just like Johnny Carson and Jay Leno did, as well as several skits that would have done Carson proud. He takes great pleasure at showing off what the TSA prohibits in hand luggage, hedge clippers, dynamite, slowly getting to the punchline where he pulls a Muslim out of his luggage.

Even more Tonight Show-esque is his game show using members of the audience where he tries to prove that the “dumbest Canadian” is more knowledgeable about current events and the world at large than the “smartest American” in the audience, using real audience members.

What falls flat, however, are his rambling anecdotes about traveling to Bitburg to heckle Ronald Reagan and about Glenn Beck’s on-air musings on having Moore assassinated. He spends far too much time on the drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan. The story of the librarian who single-handedly led a protest against HarperCollins after the publisher pulled Moore’s 2001 book, Stupid White Men, from the shelves after deeming it unsuitable for a post-9/11 U.S. audience, could have been more powerful despite its self-serving nature. Perhaps Moore doesn’t realize that what works in his generally excellent politically oriented documentaries doesn’t necessarily work on the Great White Way.

Moore is, however, authentic. Beyond his blue-on-blue uniform, his baseball cap, the way he waddles, and his knack for self-deprecation, Moore is therapeutic, a tonic for those who are weary of the past nine months. His timing is generally impeccable and the audience clearly enjoyed the show, which is more about Moore and than anything else.

But whither Michael Moore? He freely admits that the United States “isn’t big enough for both Trump and me,” but he also says he isn’t planning on leaving, either. Moore ends the show on a high note, leaving talk of poisoned drinking water, racial discrimination, and attempts on his life behind. Indeed, Friday night is “date night with Michael Moore,” and he took the audience the night I was there out for gourmet cashews and almonds. Still, I had to think that “nuts” was in fact a metaphor for something as I left the theater.


The Terms of My Surrender
Belasco Theater
111 West 44th Street
New York, N.Y. 10036
Runtime: 2 hours

(Photos: Accura Media Group)

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