By: Samuel L. Leiter
January 21, 2021: (This is the second of a two-part essay on the presence of ex-President Trump in New York theatre during his tenure. It picks up where the other left off after discussing 1984.)
Not long after, that reality became less metaphorical and distinctly more palpable when the above-mentioned provocateur Michael Moore took up residence at the Belasco in a production I saw on September 6, 2017.
Only yesterday was I able to catch up with Michael Moore’s The Terms of My Surrender, which opened nearly a month ago. In addition to the one you’re reading, it has racked up 46 regular reviews on Show-Score.com, with 135 brief ones from website members. Its aggregate score from the former is 70 and from the latter is 79, with high and low numbers all over the place. So there’s little to add to the discourse other than to briefly note my reactions for the record. And to give it a 70 of my own.
As anyone who considers themselves a political junky well knows, Moore is a middle-aged, liberal gadfly from Flint, Michigan, who, for several decades, has cast a jaundiced, regular-Joe, working-class eye on significant social issues, mainly through a series of controversial documentaries dealing with subjects ranging from gun control to health care.
He’s made a number of striking prognostications on political developments that have turned out to be true, like his prediction that Donald J. Trump would win the 2016 presidential election. Moore has regularly expressed on TV talk shows his virulent anti-Trump views and his fervid feelings about the direction the country is taking; whether one agrees with his ideas or not, they’re probably as well-known as those of any other liberal pundit’s.
In The Terms of My Surrender he has taken his well-researched angst to the Broadway stage, holding forth in what is essentially a one-man show, supplemented by the unnecessary appearance of several other folks. While various sources say the show’s an intermissionless hour and a half, the Wednesday matinee I attended clocked in at nearly two hours and 15 minutes. This, I imagine, is largely because of a guest who appeared late in the show for a needless interview designed to emphasize Moore’s point that each of us can make a difference in fixing the horrible mess into which Trumpian politics have landed us.
The show begins with Moore standing before a wall of 13 horizontal stripes of what looks like wooden siding (set by David Rockwell; lights by Kevin Adams) but that projections (by Andrew Lazarow) can transform into an image of the American flag or use for other video images.
With a huge blowup of the president on the backdrop, he gets a nice laugh from his not-so-rhetorical question, “How the fuck did this happen?,” and then presents his familiar, carefully documented, comic jeremiad about how horrible Trump is. The diatribe lasts perhaps 20 minutes and the rest of the evening bounces freely from subject to subject.
There’s a routine about the 59 items, including dynamite and Muslims, that are banned by TSA regulations; stories about how he, a shy high school student, won a speaking contest with a speech about Abe Lincoln that he used to decimate the Elks Club sponsoring the competition, which led to a civil rights outcry against the organization’s whites-only policies; his successful run for membership on his school board as a way to retaliate against the practices of his school’s administrators; his postulating a Michael Moore for 2020 presidential candidacy; and so on.
He wastes too much time with a segment demonstrating the relative lack of knowledge of Americans when compared to Canadians. This involves inviting someone from each country to come on stage to compete in an innocuous quiz show, pitting an American with a high GPA against a Canadian with a lower one; at the performance I saw, the American won, negating the entire point Moore wanted to make.
Moore kvetches about the death threats he’s received for his stances, and castigates liberal journalists who have expressed views he rejects, reminds us of how Hitler rose to power in the face of skepticism, and urges the audience to speak out if they don’t want the same thing to happen here.
Of course, the Flint water disaster takes up lots of stage time, as does Moore’s insistence to his audience that each of them, in his or her own small way, do something to get rid of Trump. For all his preaching to the choir, though, the audience, apart from when it’s laughing, never once reacts with the vitriolic glee of Trump’s base at one of his rallies. The contrast is awesomely depressing.
Toward the end of the show I attended, a couple of chairs slid out and Moore interviewed a female singer from L.A. named Milck who wrote a song called “I Can’t Keep Quiet” she and other a capella singers performed at the Women’s March in Washington last year. We heard a snatch but it’s too bad the video, or one of the other versions on YouTube couldn’t be shown during the interminable talk about it.
He’s on Broadway, of course, so Moore and his director, Michael Mayer, choose to end the show with a musical routine imagining him as a contestant on “Dancing with the Starz,” which once actually invited him to be a participant. Replete with cops arriving to arrest him and then stripping down to star spangled jock straps to rock it Magic Mike-style, it brings The Terms of My Surrender to a rollicking but thoroughly irrelevant conclusion.
Moore is a compelling presence who knows how to play his audience, but what he says in The Terms of My Surrender is too familiar to be consistently funny; we chuckle because it’s comforting to share our responses to what we’ve all heard before with an audience of like-minded people. Apart, perhaps, from Moore’s personal stories, there’s little here most of us didn’t already know. Yet, even though the show’s a hodgepodge that’s all over the place, it’s still nice to share its pungency with others feeling the same pain. Misery loves company and there’s plenty to go around these days.
In the following months, Trump was relegated to little more than passing allusions in the shows I reviewed, even when these were unintended. One example was the Broadway musical Pretty Woman, which I visited at the Nederlander Theatre on August 23, 2018. The opening paragraphs in my review declare:
Twenty-eight years ago, in 1990, Donald Trump was a married playboy billionaire, a ruthless businessman whose affair with actress Marla Maples led to his divorce that year from Ivana Trump.
Also in 1990, the late Garry Marshall’s rom-com movie, Pretty Woman, appeared. It told of a playboy billionaire, a ruthless businessman who’s just broken up with his girlfriend, falling in love with a rough-edged, professional sex worker. The pleasant fantasy of their unlikely affair, as embodied in the megawatt charisma of Richard Gere and 23-year-old Julia Roberts helped make this potentially tawdry tale into a blockbuster hit.
So, with today’s news cycle consumed with stories about Trump’s later, more egregious peccadilloes, especially the POTUS-pokes-porn star scandal, maybe this is the right moment for a Broadway adaptation of Pretty Woman’s Cinderella-like treatment of the billionaire-falls-for-sex worker plot, in which each is positively transformed by their relationship. Apart from the title’s commercial viability, there aren’t too many other reasons to justify the show’s existence.
Obviously, Pretty Women had nothing directly to do with Trump. John Patrick Shanley’s The Portuguese Kid, a flailing farce that I sawat the Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center Stage 1 on October 28, 2018, does mention Trump, but, again, merely as a punching bag introduced through a character named Atalanta Lagana (Sherie Rene Scott). “Shanley,” I opined, “for easy, joke-making, topical relevance, makes Atalanta such a Trump hater that anyone who voted for him would have to be crazy to admit it. Trump again gets the shallow last laugh.” We can expect countless future plays to be filled with similar pro and con debates regarding the man.
Trump also received frequent mentions in The Great American Drama, an experimental piece by the Neo-Futurists that I saw on January 20, 2019, at the A.R.T. Theatre in Hell’s Kitchen. My review contained these relevant paragraphs.
The general approach is to address the audience directly, usually by the show’s redheaded creator, Connor Sampson, who explains the premise and asks us what will make the show a success. This allows attendees to help the company understand what the great American drama might be if they—the audience—were asked to provide the ingredients people want to see in such an opus. Those ingredients are present in the form of suggestions audience members provided online or offered in the lobby before the performance began. Previously selected ones are projected on the upstage wall while others are read from index cards.
Thus the evening is fluid, combining both rehearsed set pieces and improvised ones, with no two shows ever being the same. There’s a lot of Trump material, none of it positive, of course, which I appreciated hearing when I attended, on Inauguration Day. Unfortunately, the only thing enjoyable about the Trump-bashing was its existence; like almost every other attempt at humor in the piece, which also includes clown shtick and cardboard puppets (including a takeoff on a Trump-Clinton debate), the results are sophomoric, heavy-handed, and, too often, seriously unfunny.
On January 31, 2019, I reviewed the revival, at Theatre Row, of Robert Bolt’s history play about Sir Thomas More, A Man for All Seasons. In it, I wrote, there is “a dramatized deadlock involving a political leader and a morally defiant subordinate who won’t give him what he wants.” Sir Thomas More’s conflict with Henry VIII was over the former’s refusal to grant the king an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. It reminded me of the clash between Trump and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi regarding the president’s insistence on building a wall between the US and Mexico. Apart from that, the Trump connection is irrelevant. I concluded:
As noted, we may one day have a Trump-Pelosi drama, with objections to a wall replacing objections to a divorce. But until we get A Woman for All Seasons, even an only so-so revival of A Man for All Seasons can get you thinking about dilemmas in which an irresistible force meets an immovable object.
Two’s a Crowd, a mediocre comedy by and starring Rita Rudner, which I saw at 59E59 Theaters on July 21, 2019, is mentioned here only because, like so many others, it finds a moment or two to aim arrows at Trump. There was strong applause, for instance, when a character used the verb “trump” without meaning the president, and another said, “Please don’t say Trump.” “Cheap joke, yes,” I commented, “but many of us need a public opportunity to let off anti-Trump steam, so it’s at least excusable.” Playwrights were learning, when you need a laugh, say “Trump.” Among other shows of the period in which Trump’s name was briefly blasted include Heroes of the Fourth Turning, A Spacey Odyssey: God of Marz, Log Cabin, and Balls, and others mentioned below.
I mentioned before that Trump himself didn’t appear in these shows, although he showed up on one or two Playbill covers, and on a projection in Michael Moore’s show. On the other hand, no one could possibly have missed the fact that Gregg Henry, who played the title role in Shakespeare in the Park revival of Julius Caesar,which I saw on June 10, 2017, was made up to resemble the Commander in Chief. Re-reading the review today offers a chilling reminder of how Caesar’s assassination in the Senate by rabid fanatics uncannily reflects the January 6 attack on the Capitol, when crazed rioters went searching for politicians to murder, not least Mike Pence, even shouting “Hang Pence!” The production stirred up so much heat that several major corporate donors to the Shakespeare Festival withdrew their support. Here is my review, slightly cut.
The New York theatre’s nonstop attack on President Trump raises the ante with Oskar Eustis’s controversial Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar. While current plays like Robert Shenkkan’s Building the Wall are specifically written with the POTUS in mind, and coming works like 1984, written before he took office, will, reportedly, be lofting stink bombs in his direction, even shows like Woody Sez: The Words & Music of Woody Guthrie and The Attack of the Elvis Impersonators can’t resist firing a sling here and an arrow there in DJT’s direction.
As you may have heard, this up-to-the-minute, modern-dress revival, which runs a fast-paced, intermissionless two hours, is intended to remind us of the danger to democracy represented by our political situation. It presents the title character (Gregg Henry, very good) as the out-and-out avatar of our cockily blaring, pussy-grabbing president. He’s got the blond hair, navy suit, overlong tie, air of grandiosity, and supporters wearing “Make America Great Again” caps.
He bathes in a golden tub and is joined there by his fashionable, Slavic-accented wife, Calpurnia (Tina Benko). When he steps out of it starkers, he dons a plush, white bathrobe. The aftermath of his assassination—because he would deny Rome’s democratic tradition by agreeing to be its king—is as vivid as what led CNN to fire Kathy Griffin. All that’s missing is Alec Baldwin.
Although this may be the first New York production of Julius Caesar in which the Roman leader has been so closely likened to a sitting US president,* the idea of using modern dress to comment on current politics has been around ever since Orson Welles’s heavily adapted Mercury Theatre version, 80 years ago; subtitled The Death of a Dictator, it was inspired by the rise of Mussolini and set in a jackboot-wearing, totalitarian fascist state. The year, of course, was 1937, [A reader reminds me that the Acting Company offered an Obama-like Caesar in 2012.]
Just as Eustis’s analogy leads to ambiguities that crumble on closer scrutiny, so did Welles’s, which couldn’t neatly express a propaganda message it wasn’t written to convey. Critic Grenville Vernon, for example, noted the difficulty of determining if the message was pro- or antifascist, or who the hero was. But there’s no denying the present version’s entertainment value for liberal audiences. It doesn’t matter if makes sense so long as it provides a valve for letting off political steam in these troubled times. Just don’t do it in Wyoming.
Eustis’s program note says: “And in case any of you are wondering—no, we didn’t write any new lines. It’s all Shakespeare,” but a recorded announcement before the play begins notes an exception. It turns out to be the one about what Caesar could get away with by doing it on “Fifth Avenue,” which gets the biggest laugh but seems seriously out of place. On the other hand, there’s plenty in Shakespeare’s original to allow for contemporizing the intentions behind his words, even to the use of “posting” or “the press.”
The New York audience, of course, laps this stuff up like free ice cream, and, for all the seriousness of what’s depicted, the Caesar scenes play more like political comedy—every possible nuance gets a knowing chuckle—than solemn historical drama about the abuse of power and the collapse of democracy. It turns out, of course, that Caesar’s assassination wasn’t such a hot idea, so Trump haters hoping for the president’s removal should put aside their metaphorical swords and allow the legal issues to take their natural course.
In fact, for all his obvious arrogance and ambition, Caesar’s killing seems more the outcome of a band of fanatics than a blow for freedom. Caesar, however, dies midway through; once he’s gone (aside from a brief, ghostly appearance), the production’s air, shall we say, begins to leak, with two principal exceptions.
One of the exceptions preventing a completely flat tire is the dueling speeches of Brutus (Corey Stoll) and Marc Antony (Elizabeth Marvel) about Caesar’s murder, the first justifying it and the second, more famous (“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your covfefe”—just kidding), condemning it. As always, especially when well delivered, these rhetorical exercises demonstrate the power with which cleverly articulated words can manipulate mass opinion. The other is a fiery exchange between Brutus and Cassius (John Douglas Thompson) over their war with Antony’s forces. But not much else prevents the post-Caesar scenes from seeming dully anticlimactic.
David Rockwell’s set gathers an eclectic assortment of elements, including a metal tower faced with a picture of George Washington set against the preamble to the Constitution, and two huge, quarter arcs suggesting gears. Only when these latter come together to create a semicircular background to the assassination in the Senate does the set have aesthetic coherence. There’s also an extensive use of elevator traps to introduce and remove actors and scenic pieces (like that bathtub); one such unit is a shabby, motel-like room (subbing for a tent, I presume) for Brutus and Cassius’ argument. It looks like a discard from a Sam Shepherd play.
Kenneth Posner’s lighting is superb, Jessica Paz’s sound design enhances the atmosphere, Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet’s fight business is gripping, and Paul Tazewell has come up with an abundance of present-day costumes, with touches like pussy hats, for a huge cast. A lot of future actors, many of them planted among us to rise up for mob scenes, are going to be able to list this Julius Caesar on their résumés.
The acting, by and large, is solid but unremarkable. It’s politically incorrect to say so but, for all her admirable skills, particularly during her well-delivered big oration, the presence of Elizabeth Marvel as Antony (for which she uses a vaguely Southern accent) is disconcerting, requiring constant self-reminders to overlook a woman’s being cast in this very masculine role. But, if it’s necessary to cast an actress as Antony, then few could do it quite so well. Stoll and Thompson are effective in their big confrontation and display a fine contrast elsewhere, the former’s rational attitude complemented by the latter’s rabblerousing fire. Neither, though, is able to overcome the lassitude that seeps in following the perforation of the pompous POTUS.
Critic John Mason Brown, overwhelmed by the power of Orson Welles’s 1937 adaptation, wrote: “Of all the many new plays and productions the season has so far revealed, this . . . is by all odds the most exciting, the most imaginative, the most topical, the most awesome, and the most absorbing. The touch of genius is upon it.” The Central Park production is interesting principally for its provocative topicality; the touch of genius, however, is not upon it.
Theatre may sometimes be slow to respond to current events, but sooner or later it gets there. Still, the day that theatre makes Trump, like Voldemort, the name that shall not be spoken cannot come soon enough.