Review of Manhattan Theatre Club's Bella Bella, written by and starring Harvey Fierstein

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    October 23, 2019
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    There are two reasons why Bella Bella will most likely succeed. One is Harvey Fierstein and the other is Bella Abzug. Oh boy, is it ever Bella Abzug.

    Bella (Fierstein) has taken sanctuary in her hotel suite’s bathroom. It is the night of the 1976 Democratic Primary for Senator, held at the civilized date of a few weeks before the election. Outside the bathroom the likes of Lily Tomlin, Gloria Steinem and Shirley MacLaine are waiting for the polls to close and the votes to be counted. Did I mention that one of her opponents was Daniel Patrick Moynihan? So we all know where this is going.

    What we don’t know is why Abzug deserved to be the next lone woman in the Senate. Fierstein spells it out for us. He has chosen the choicest of her achievements, which are astronomical. Prior to Elizabeth Warren, and with little or no support from the powers that be, Abzug persisted. And persisted. And persisted.

    “I was trained as an intellectual,” she tells us. “I’m doing my best to hide it.” She defended clients during the McCarthy hearings. She worked with Women’s Strike For Peace, teaching them how to organize and lobby. She worked with and for Bobby Kennedy. She stayed in the background doing the serious grunt work so that progressive Democratic candidates would get elected. Until the lightbulb went on. She was just as qualified as the men she was promoting.

    She was elected to the House of Representatives – the first to use the slogan THIS WOMAN’S PLACE IS IN THE HOUSE. THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES!” Abzug was the first member of the House to call for Nixon’s impeachment. She opposed the Vietnam War. She supported gay rights. She was the first woman to use the Men’s only swimming pool. She spent two years as Chief Counsel for Willie McGee, a black man in Mississippi convicted of having a consensual relationship with a white woman. She slept in the courthouse because no one would rent her a room. She lived on vending machine food. She also miscarried her 8-month old baby. And eventually McGee was executed. A double miscarriage she tells us. This did not change her dedication to Civil Rights.

    She was responsible for getting the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional record; for passing a bill that gave women the RIGHT to have their own credit cards (yes folks you read that correctly). After only six years, US News and World Report named her the third most powerful member of the House. Duh.

    And for what is she remembered? Her hats.

    Fierstein sets out to correct this egregious oversight, and by the time he is done reviewing Abzug’s extraordinary accomplishments, we are left gasping. Not only at this woman, but at the way she was swept under the rug. By her colleagues and by history.

    Fierstein wears no make-up or drag. He is not worried about imitating Abzug. He is embodying her. This is a challenge as everything that he is, is completely opposite of Abzug. He is tall, large, with a voice that could grind pebbles into concrete, and he is, of course a man.

    None of this would matter if I had believed what he was doing. I tried. And I came up short.

    I am a fan of Fierstein not only for his talent as an actor and a writer, but for his commitment to showing us the other side of the life we pass by on the street. Torch Song Trilogy appeared decades before people ever dreamed of gay marriage, and well before the AIDS epidemic. With sexual identity being fluid, Fierstein may be ahead of his time, again.

    In this Manhattan Theatre Club world premiere of Bella Bella at New York City Center, however, I found his work distant. He comments on the jokes or the pithy observations with an “aw shucks” that I cannot imagine either he or Abzug using. There was hesitancy. There was schtick. And there was petulance. The litany of Abzug’s accomplishments is served up with a side of self-righteousness that undermines the purpose of the evening. 

    People will go see this, however. Both because of Fierstain and Abzug. At the very least they will leave with an understanding of this reckless, wild, brave, barrier breaking woman. They will be lifted up and inspired. They will be be changed for the better on some level. Which ain’t bad for a night’s work, now, is it?

    (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

    "Why is Bella Abzug — with her trademark big-brimmed hat — stepping fully dressed from the shower? That at any rate is how we meet her in Bella Bella, Harvey Fierstein’s cobbled-together PowerPoint of a play about the firebrand New York congresswoman of the 1970s. If it’s a peculiar pose for Abzug, it makes perfect sense for Fierstein playing her; a star needs a big entrance, and there’s nowhere else for the director Kimberly Senior to give him one on John Lee Beatty’s blue bathroom set. Those who have seen Fierstein onstage won’t be surprised; they know he’s not going to lose a battle for dominance with any author, including himself. He’s a big, tasty ham and will do whatever is necessary to make sure you get an ample helping of his warmth and flavor regardless of the role. That’s usually a net plus. But in a biographical vehicle like Bella Bella, which opened on Tuesday at New York City Center Stage I, it unfortunately means someone else is not getting served. In this case, big surprise, it’s the woman. Her name may appear twice on the Manhattan Theater Club marquee but neither the anecdotal play nor the droll performance provides the depth of a reasonably thorough obituary."
    Jesse Green for New York Times

    "Although much of the play, which draws heavily from Abzug’s own writings and public statements, is explicitly concerned with the importance of women’s representation, Fierstein is the one who performs it. Dressed in a simple black shirt and pants, with no gesture toward drag, he avoids any hint of burlesque, and his portrait of Abzug is informative and respectful throughout, but there’s an unavoidable incongruity in the fact of Fierstein’s male presentation. The tradeoff for this is Fierstein himself: He’s so distinctive a performer (that dragonish voice! that naughty smile!) and so immensely appealing as Abzug—he gives her a more Yiddish accent than she had in real life, the better to endear himself to the audience with warm Jewish humor—that it’s hard to imagine the role being played by anyone else."
    Adam Feldman for Time Out New York

    "As with so many preaching-to-the-choir plays on the New York stage these days, Bella Bella is a MAGA rally for voters on the other end of the political spectrum."
    Robert Hofler for The Wrap

    "The commendable spirit behind Harvey Fierstein's big smoochy valentine to the famously feisty lawyer, congresswoman, feminist godmother and hat queen, Bella Abzug, goes a long way toward shifting attention away from the material's shortcomings. But the enormous good will for both the writer-performer and his subject can't disguise the fact that Bella Bella isn't quite a play — at least not one that acquires three-dimensional theatrical life. Still, there are compensations aplenty in sharing the politician's triumphs and frustrations as distilled by Fierstein, an eternally captivating storyteller who sprinkles the fond salute with Yiddishisms, zingers and amusing aphorisms."
    David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter

    "In this context,”Bella Bella,” his one-man show based on “the words and works” of the New York Congresswoman and seminal feminist Bella Abzug, is clearly a work of hero worship — a labor of love, now making its world premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety