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“How the fuck did this happen?” Michael Moore asks at the beginning of his Broadway debut, The Terms of My Surrender, which opened last night at the Belasco Theatre for a three-month run. He makes it clear that he’s talking about the election of Donald J. Trump, not his one-man show on the Great White Way. For nearly two hours, the filmmaker, activist, and mensch, dressed in his usual schmatas including ever-present baseball cap, mixes pivotal moments from his life with ideas about how the left can come together and retake control of the White House and Congress. When he’s talking about President Trump, usually standing at a microphone at the front center of the stage, a giant American flag behind him, he does not quite have the fanatical fury or commanding presence of George C. Scott as General George S. Patton that setup evokes but instead comes off as a comic pundit preaching to the choir on MSNBC. But when he sits down at a desk or in a comfy reading chair and shares personal stories about how one person — himself, in several cases — can indeed make a difference, the his performance is riveting. Moore relates how he got involved in an Elks Club controversy; how he and a friend went to Germany to protest Ronald Reagan’s visit to a Nazi cemetery in Bitburg; how the governor of Michigan is involved in the poisoning of thousands of children with lead-laced drinking water in Moore’s impoverished hometown of Flint; and how one librarian from Englewood affected the publication of his 2001 book Stupid White Men. (That librarian, Ann Sparanese, was in the audience on opening night and received a standing ovation. Also on hand for the opening-night celebration were Harry Belafonte, Anna Deavere Smith, Dan Rather, Christie Brinkley, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Marlo Thomas, Jonathan Alter, Nia Vardalos, Al Sharpton, Rosanna Scotto, and Tony Bennett.)
A set piece about carry-on items banned by the TSA is hit-or-miss, and a game show pitting the dumbest Canadian in the audience against the smartest American is silly and goes on too long, serving as a way for Moore to spout yet more statistics at us. An informal tête-à-tête with a surprise guest — on opening night it was Gloria Steinem and previously has featured Bryan Cranston, Rep. Maxine Waters, Morgan Spurlock, and Judah Friedlander — can become self-indulgent, a crafty way to turn the spotlight away from Moore temporarily, but that’s easier said than done, as Moore can’t help being the center of attention, whether on a Broadway stage, on television (TV Nation, The Awful Truth), or in such films as Roger & Me, Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Michael Moore in Trumpland. His shocking tale of receiving death threats and assassination attempts brings the show to a screeching halt when he decides to test the FCC by calling a public figure and making the same death threats he got from Glenn Beck. Moore most certainly is not in Trumpland at the Belasco, where the predominantly liberal audience claps often in support of the Flint native’s views on the president and politics. Tony-winning director Michael Mayer (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Spring Awakening) has his hands full with the show, which jumps around from scene to scene and bit to bit, including a fair amount of ad-libbing, as Moore updates his comments with the latest news to keep things fresh. Tony-winning designer David Rockwell’s (She Loves Me, Kinky Boots) set features a desk and chairs that slide on- and offstage and a large American flag backdrop onto which Andrew Lazarow projects photographs, clips of Trump, headlines, and other images. There’s also an empty presidential box waiting for Trump, complete with “little opera gloves,” but don’t expect Trump or Vice President and Broadway superfan Mike Pence to take those seats anytime soon. The show is uneven, but when Moore, an often amiable yet fiery fellow who drives the right insane, gets away from the rhetoric and focuses on his heartfelt conviction that one person really can initiate change — and insists that now is most definitely not the time to give up — The Terms of My Surrender is right on target, reminding us all that if Moore can do it, there’s no reason we can’t either.