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Bella Bella

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - October 28, 2019

Harvey Fierstein
Photo by Jeremy Daniel
At least he isn't in drag. As Bella Abzug, the feisty, trailblazing New York congresswoman of the 1970s, Harvey Fierstein enters in silhouette, the lighting coming up to reveal our old friend in untucked black shirt, black jeans, and, for some reason, bare feet. He's so casual, Rita Ryack's costuming barely rates a credit. Bella isn't Edna Turnblad, and Fierstein, who also wrote this one-person evening, must have felt elaborate costuming and makeup would only have proved a distraction. (He took up the role only after some prominent ladies—Patti LuPone, Bette Midler, Kathy Bates—passed on it.) He's not entirely in mufti, though: Bella was known for her hats, and the iconic red lid Harvey sports is a honey.

Like most this-is-my-life solo shows, Bella Bella peeks in on its protagonist at a crucial moment of his/her life, offering him/her an opportunity to confide in us while serving up a generous slice of autobiography. This may be the only one-man show set in a bathroom, which, in John Lee Beatty's generously proportioned set, is on an upper floor of the Summit (now Metropolitan) Hotel in the East 50s, on a fateful primary night in 1976. Bella, running against Daniel Patrick Moynihan and other less prominent male pols, fully expects to win this contest and breeze into the U.S. Senate. She's never lost an election, as she reminds us more than once, and she relishes a good fight. The drama, though—anyone with a modest knowledge of New York political history will know the outcome—is less compelling than the reminiscences.

Fierstein, as ever, displays expert comic timing and a canny use of his distinctive voice. His vocal cadences are a reasonable facsimile of Abzug's, and the two have identical accents. Much of the humor at City Center Stage I derives from his old trick of saying a line in his already deep voice, pausing, and delivering the punch line in an even lower timbre.

We love them both, but there's more Harvey than Bella on that stage. This isn't so much an impersonation as an impressionistic rendering, the spirit of Bella without the particulars, and the already formidable Fierstein persona tends to overwhelm it. Kimberly Senior's direction can't do much but keep him roaming around the bathroom, always facing front, and interacting with the audience in that hokey way that seems to be breaking the fourth wall out of desperation.

Bella wasn't a mild lady, but Bella Bella is a mild play. Maybe the solo-show format is too confining for this commanding woman, who not only led an interesting life but associated with, and pissed off, a lot of interesting people. We'd like to meet some of them, notably Martin, her devoted spouse, who appears to have functioned as a helpmate in much the same way Martin Ginsburg did for Ruth Bader. Beyond that bathroom door, we're told, are Shirley MacLaine, Gloria Steinem, and Lily Tomlin, among others, but they're only mentioned in passing. The principal theme, the challenge of being a woman in a man's political world, is (unfortunately still) valid, but it grows a little wearying.

We do get some good stories along the way: Bella's days at Columbia Law, why she wore a hat and gloves, who she liked and (mostly) didn't in politics, and the heartbreaking saga of Willie McGee, a black man in Mississippi she almost successfully defended, who got the chair for, essentially, having an affair with a white married woman. The plus-ca-change aspects of Bella's career resonate, as in a Harry Truman anecdote ("He demanded a loyalty oath from everyone who worked for him, can you imagine?"), and she has some entertaining observations about her peers ("Koch wasn't always a prick. I think of him more as a yenta, his nose in everyone's business"). There's also a great Liz Taylor joke at the end.

The emotional intensity, though, seldom rises above a simmer—surprising, considering what a colorful, intimidating, loud presence Abzug was in life. She clashed famously with New York notables of the day, and a familiarity with several of them—Susan Brownmiller, Ronnie Eldridge, Barry Farber—is a valuable thing to bring into the theater. I've met Bella's daughter Liz, who's billed here as a consultant. She's fervently and justifiably proud of her mother, and she'd like the world to have an artistic portrait of Bella that would make her accomplishments and triumphs better known in these short-attention-span days. Bella Bella, as likable and pleasant an 85 minutes as it is, isn't quite it.

Bella Bella
Through December 1, 2019
Manhattan Theatre Club @ New York City Center Stage 1, 131 West 55th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, New York
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule at

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