Is one hotel bathroom big enough for personalities as outsized as Harvey Fierstein and Bella Abzug? The playwright’s Bella Bella, opening tonight at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Off Broadway venue in the New York City Center, suggests a pretty tight fit.
A public personality has reached true large-than-life status when a mere signifier can stand for whole shebang. A bright red hat with a brim the size of a manhole cover shouts to any New Yorker of a certain age “Bella Abzug”, and if the voice doing the shouting has more gravel than a Bronx construction site, it’s probably Harvey Fierstein.
Both battle for attention Fierstein’s solo show, in which the playwright channels the late, great Congresswoman from New York.
If the show seems more Harvey Harvey than Bella, Bella (I won’t be the only critic swinging for that softball, or this one: Bellow Bellow), the playwright’s love and reverence for his subject is louder than the hat and voice combined.
The forever hatted Abzug was a fierce, lifelong fighter for women’s rights and righteous causes who became New York’s voice in Congress through much of the 1970s. Witty, combative, beloved, hated, feared and revered, Abzug was a major figure on the city and national political scenes through much of that decade, her failures as notable as her victories.
Bella Bella, directed by Kimberly Senior, takes place on the eve of one of those rare failures: An unsuccessful bid in 1976 for the the Democratic nomination to U.S. Senate. Her loss to the moderate Daniel Patrick Moynihan all but ended her political career, though she remained active in public life until her death in 1998.
Fierstein tells her story in a way that will be familiar from various one-person shows, particularly Jay Presson Allen’s form-setting Tru from 1989. Allen had Truman Capote trapped in his United Nations Plaza apartment awaiting the fallout from a just-published scandal-mongering magazine piece, while Fierstein ensconces Abzug in the bathroom (efficiently designed by John Lee Beatty) of the New York Summit Hotel as she awaits the election results from that final Senate race. Here a nervous Abzug takes a breather from her loyal – and sometimes famous – supporters gathered just outside the door.
Fierstein, dressed in a man’s black shirt and pants – that red hat, the sole nod to Abzug’s own look, is doffed within seconds of Fierstein’s entrance – speaks directly to the audience (as Tru’s Capote did) in a non-stop monologue of history lesson, confession, braggadocio, name-dropping, joking and intimacy.
Much of the monologue seems in Abzug’s own words, for better or worse. Zingers that once zinged, no matter how true they still ring, can now seem like dialogue for a ’70s-era Norman Lear comedy. When Abzug says “A woman’s place is in the house,” at least some in the audience will know – and others should guess – that the punchline will be “of Representatives.”
That’s not to suggest that Bella Bella lacks contemporary relevance – Abzug’s crusades for equal rights, abortion rights, and political representation and visibility, well conveyed in this play, remain as vital as ever, the causes they espouse newly under threat. Few in Fierstein’s Off Broadway audience will disagree with a word Abzug says – anecdotes about Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon, with barely veiled and eerily accurate shades of the current White House occupant, received rounds of applause at the reviewed performance.
And if there’s a comfort-food element to Abzug’s compassionate, common-sense humanism, the same can be said of the man onstage. With the exception of adopting Abzug’s Yiddish accent, Fierstein is as much Harvey as Bella, blustering, shouting, emoting and capping many a rant with the sheepish smile that dates back at least to Torch Song Trilogy.
Endearing? As always. Rehearsed? Absolutely. Fierstein knows just how to speak to his audience, even if he has to talk over Bella Abzug to do it.