Although its running time is just under two hours, Michael Moore’s “The Terms of My Surrender” makes Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” feel short.
Moore’s ubiquitous baseball cap predates Donald Trump’s by a few decades, but this one-man show, which opened Thursday at the Belasco Theatre, exposes how much else these two men have in common: They share a need for self-aggrandizement, victimhood and, above all, much worshipful applause from their respective political bases. Trump goes to West Virginia. Moore comes to Broadway.
At its very best, “Terms” shows Moore’s considerable talent for working up moral outrage. His quick take-down of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder over the ongoing Flint water crisis is horrifying in its economy and its concision. It’s also effective theater because Moore pretty much keeps himself out of the narrative.
Elsewhere in “Terms,” we’re not so lucky. The show is really the Greatest Hits from Moore’s life, and most tales will be well known to the viewers of his many documentaries (“Roger & Me,” “Sicko”) or the readers of his many best-sellers (“Here Comes Trouble,” “Downsize This”).
What’s surprising is how poorly Moore tells a story in person. He comes off far more nervous, high-pitched, and benign on stage than on screen. Although no hair and makeup artist is credited, there is a costume designer, Jeff Mahshie, who has jettisoned Moore’s jean jacket and flannel (it is August in New York, after all) for a neatly pressed long-sleeved shirt, its color best described as cerulean.
The problem is, while this Blue-Collar Joe took the time to shave for his Broadway gig, unlike his appearances on Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert, he forgot to bring those TV hosts’ writers with him.
Moore tries to make the point that one person can make a difference, and repeatedly “The Terms of My Surrender” casts Moore as that can-do little guy. At age 16, while attending Boys State, he took on the racism of the Elks Club in a speech that caught the attention of Walter Cronkite. At 18, he got elected to the local school board so he could fire his high school principal. When Ronald Reagan laid flowers near the graves of Nazi soldiers at Bitburg, Germany, in 1985, he and a Jewish friend flew there to unfurl a home-made banner that read “We’re Here from Michigan, USA, to Remind You They Killed My Family.” And he took on the “censors” at Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp when HarperCollins tried to pulp his book “Stupid White Men” in the wake of 9/11.
In each case, Moore demurs, giving the real credit to some other person or force beyond his own ego, whether that is a librarian in Englewood, New Jersey, or his own unhealthy addiction to Ruffles potato chips. But in the end, it all comes down to Michael being magnificent.
As for victimhood, Moore makes much of the death threats he’s received, treating us to a rather grizzly litany of how those physical attacks have, on occasion, injured his bodyguards. Again, it’s the little people behind Moore who make him great. Or, at least, keep him standing.
In early previews, “The Terms of My Surrender” featured an on-stage interview with a surprise guest celebrity. Bryan Cranston made one notable appearance. No celeb appeared at the critics’ preview. It’s telling to consider what remains in the show. Take an audience-participation game show skit called “Stump the Canadian.”
At the critics’ preview, the audience volunteer from up north didn’t take Moore’s bait about how long a Canadian would have to wait to see a doctor if he or she had brain cancer. “Six months” wasn’t the answer Moore wanted to hear. Unable to ad lib a great retort, he simply stumbled on to the next question.
The Tony-winning director Michael Mayer shows his stuff when two Chippendales dancers show up unexpectedly to entertain. It’s completely gratuitous but very welcome break.