“Montreal!” the confident co-ed from Sarah Lawrence responded when Michael Moore asked, “What is the capital of Canada?” This was a bit from the Oscar-winning docu-provocateur’s Broadway debut, The Terms of My Surrender, which opened Thursday at the Belasco Theatre. The point of the audience-participation exercise was to demonstrate that the dumbest Canadian is better educated than the smartest U.S. citizen, and the only surprise – variations of the gambit having been a fixture of late-night TV for decades – was that the Ottawa-challenged U.S. student won.
Not since Bette Midler made her first entrance at the first preview of Hello, Dolly! has an audience erupted as it did at the Belasco for Moore. Fists pumped, mouths roared and chants of “Woo-hoo!” bounced off the walls, hailing the conquering hero. This is, of course, not a crowd that needed urging to be conquered: Moore is on friendly turf.
The primary focus is the campaign, election and presidency-so-far of Donald J. Trump, whose scary visage looms behind the filmmaker. “How the f*ck did this happen?” is Moore’s opening line, which he clarifies – “I don’t mean me on Broadway” – before repeating the question.
With the directorial hand of Michael Mayer (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Spring Awakening), on the till, Moore is at ease onstage and projects a jolly conspiratorial air, as in, “We’re all in this together.” But the show is a rambling, ramshackle affair that careens between shtick and sober business, and both ends of that spectrum suffer.
That’s disappointing to report, given the seriousness of many of Moore’s stories, notably the subject on which he is most passionate at the moment: the lead poisoning of the mostly African-American citizens of Flint, MI, after the city’s water supply was diverted from Lake Huron to a polluted local river.
The show’s overriding theme is that individuals have the power to make a difference in the course of history, and Moore paints a deservedly fine portrait of himself as exemplar. But his politics can get muddled. A stunt phone call to Andrew Cuomo’s office – in which he substitutes the New York governor’s name for his own in repeating death threats by lunatic haranguer Glenn Beck – doesn’t illustrate a flaw in the First Amendment so much as dilute the impact of his harrowing account of actual attempts on his life.
And I wondered why the three Equity actors who participate in Terms aren’t credited in the program, as if to say the bit players don’t deserve recognition. (A spokesman for the show told me it’s because their appearance is “a surprise.” Audience members are supposed to get an insert as they leave identifying the actors. I didn’t get one, but for the record they are Kylie Shea Lewallen, Vince Oddo and Nicholas Cunningham.)
The Terms of My Surrender is heartfelt and represents the thinking and ideology of a crucial voice of dissent and opposition at a time direly in need of such voices. But it’s a lazy show that severely underestimates it audience. Preaching to the choir is one thing; pandering to it is of a somewhat lower order.
One of last season’s most celebrated plays, Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2, has seen a changeover in three of its four-member cast, including Laurie Metcalf, who originated the leading role of Nora Helmer. In Hnath’s marvelous “sequel,” Ibsen’s heroine has returned to the home she walked out on 15 years earlier, now a wealthy author of feminist tracts, in order to get husband Torvald to make good on his promise to divorce her.
The new cast members include Julie White as Nora, Stephen McKinley Henderson as Torvald and Erin Wilhelmi as their dauughter Emmy, joining Jayne Houydeshell as the housekeeper Anne Marie. They’re brilliant. White has a light touch and game business as Nora, bringing out the comic shadings in contrast to the darker woman played by Metcalf. Henderson, a theater treasure and essential to the film of Fences, is magisterial as Torvald, at once self-composed and enormously, touchingly vulnerable.
But the most startling change is in Emmy: As played by Condola Rashad, this soon-to-be-married daughter presented an almost terrifying mask of disconnection, parrying her mother’s self-justifications with cool, surgical responses. Wilhelmi lets down the mask, playing a young woman nearly ruined by loss with more visible evidence of her hurt and anger. It’s every bit as compelling. And of course the masterly Houdyshell remains, lovably stolid and funny, looking like a bystander in an Old Masters portrait while dropping the odd F-bomb to shake things up.
A Doll’s House, Part 2 is as rich the second time around as it was the first: smart, funny, whiplash engaging and insanely entertaining. Even as it is quite different – and, so, freshly revealing with these gifted newcomers. A must see – whether for the first, second or third time…
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