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, short-sleeve 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 18-year-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 only prevail 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 envelope-pushing 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 dollars 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.
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