By: Paulanne Simmons
October 27, 2019: Harvey Fierstein’s Bella Bella is certainly a tribute to the trailblazing New York congresswoman. But even more it is a personal act of love.
Directed by Kimberly Senior, this solo show takes place in the bathroom of the Summit Hotel, where Bella Abzug has sought respite from her supporters, awaiting the election returns in her bid for a Senate seat. And from the moment Fierstein steps out of the shower and dons one of Bella’s famous hats to her final goodbye wave as she walks out to face defeat, we know Bella holds a special place in Fierstein’s heart.
For those old enough to remember those times, or those sufficiently well-read to appreciate recent history, there are no surprises here. In that startlingly blue bathroom, Bella recounts growing up in New York City, her decision to become a labor lawyer, her work on Civil Rights cases, her opposition to the war in Viet Nam and her victory over Leonard Farbstein to represent Manhattan’s West Side in Congress. Wherever she goes, whatever her cause, Bella had to fight not only for her cause but for her right as a woman to fight for it.
Along the way, Bella gives her no holds barred opinion of many iconic figures of the day from Paul O’Dwyer to JFK, from President Johnson to President Nixon. Many of these opinions are inflected by Abzug’s irrepressible Yiddish humor. Some of the lines are obviously Abzug’s. A good deal may be pure Fierstein.
In fact, even though this solo piece is firmly focussed on Bella, in the end, if only through the force of his own unique personality and theatrical skill, it is all about Fierstein. If this is not drag, it’s the closest thing to it. Fierstein’s talents add to the entertainment value of the show at the same time they subtract from its gravitas.
Bella Bella is always entertaining and frequently fascinating. But it is not quite a play. It doesn’t really have much of a plot. And … well… we all know (or should) there was never a Senator Abzug. So, despite her forced optimism, especially at the top of the evening, we all know she will be defeated by The New York Times and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
This show is not for everyone. But if you’re of a certain age, if you remember and respect Bella and her achievements or if you’re a fan of Fierstein’s, it’s not to be missed.
Bella Bella ***1/2
Manhattan Theater Club
City Center Stage 1
132 West 55 Street, between Sixth and Seventh Aves
Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes. No intermission.
Photography: Jeremy Daniel