NEW YORK — For those who imagine a fine line exists between activism and entertainment, Michael Moore has arrived on Broadway to demonstrate how unbreachable that line in the wrong hands can be.
“The Terms of My Surrender” is what he calls the sloppy concoction he’s hauled into the Belasco Theatre, where the production had its official opening Thursday night. Less a jaunty excursion than an unvarnished ego trip, the show is a slog through cringe-
inducing skits and only occasionally engaging anecdotes about Moore’s stumble into the life of a political gadfly.
It’s a life of no small consequence, and under other circumstances, one could envision an evening of illuminating stories, tautly and perhaps charmingly assembled. His breakout 1989 documentary, “Roger & Me,” was an inspired piece of personal journalism that chronicled Moore’s antics as he sought out the then-CEO of General Motors, Roger Smith, to ask him why GM shuttered its plants in Moore’s economically devastated home town, Flint, Mich. (Who can ever forget the side trips Moore took to the home of a rabbit breeder trying to make ends meet with her advertising slogan, “Pets or Meat”?)
The classic device Moore employed so winningly in that movie and, to varying degrees, in follow-up films over the years, was that of the little guy going up against venal and corrupt institutions on behalf of other little guys. But in “The Terms of My Surrender,” directed by Tony winner Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening”), Moore commits the fatal error of a premise in which now, he’s become the big guy.
So along with a few decent, if self-aggrandizing, stories, about how as a teenager he earned fame railing against racism in the Elks Club and won election to the local school board, we are subjected to a score-settling rant about right-wing talker Glenn Beck, who, on a tape Moore replays, once mused on-air about the murder of Moore. In one of the production’s more vulgar low points, Moore purports to create a kind of imitation of Beck’s action, dialing up the office of New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) and leaving a death threat on voice mail.
It’s a stunt, like so many others Moore has dreamed up over the years, that’s meant to illuminate an injustice — although in this case the aggrieved party is none other than our host. The action itself seems especially tasteless. And left unexplained is why Cuomo, otherwise unmentioned in the show, is singled out for this abuse.
Much of “The Terms of My Surrender” lurches from topic to topic in this manner, with Moore seated in an easy chair or hovering over a desk, uncertainly reaching into memory for his next line — a halting delivery that frustrates a listener. The theme running through the nearly two-hour, intermissionless production has to do with Moore’s motivational call to arms for the rest of us, or as he puts it, “This little 12-step meeting I’ve invited you to.” The lesson he wants to impart is that while President Trump is going to be around for a while, “the silver lining is, we are the majority,” a reference to the fact that Trump lost the popular vote by a margin of almost 3 million.
Offering up as a model his history as a provocateur, Moore implores us to get off our duffs and drive Trump nuts. “We have to be a swarm of bees around his head,” he declares at one point. Besides showing us an app, 5calls.org, that can automatically dial your representatives in Congress for you, “The Terms of My Surrender” doesn’t have much of a game plan. That goes as much for its theatrical goals as its political ones.
The Terms of My Surrender, by Michael Moore. Directed by Michael Mayer. Set, David Rockwell; costumes, Jeff Mahshie; lighting, Kevin Adams; sound, Brian Ronan; projections and videos, Andrew Lazarow; movement, Noah Racey. About 1 hour 50 minutes. $39-$249. At the Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St., New York. Visit telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.