Like a great many history plays, Harvey Fierstein’s Bella Bella is as much about the present as the past, paralleling everything that’s gone wrong now with what went wrong then. Unsurprisingly, it’s also shamelessly biased, with the first word in the play’s title apparently meant to be read in Italian as part of Fierstein’s banally straightforward tribute to Bella Abzug, the feistiest of feisty 1970’s New York City politicians, best known for her take-no-prisoners liberalism as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. One’s enjoyment of the play probably depends on how prone you are to clap or hiss along with the rest of the unambiguously sympathetic Manhattan Theatre Club audience, even if it’s only in your own head.
Besides writing the decidedly solo show, Fierstein also stars as Abzug, who spends the play monologuing in an Upper East Side hotel bathroom. It’s election night, 1976, and the alternately self-assured and fragile Abzug is locked in a tight five-way race to become New York’s Democratic nominee for the, at the time, all-male U.S. Senate. Anyone familiar with the name Daniel Patrick Moynihan will undoubtedly know how things eventually turn out for Abzug, but, even if the outcome isn’t a shock to you, the multiple Tony Award-winning Fierstein’s script, which weaves in a lot of Abzug’s own words, still manages to generate at least a smattering of suspense by making it seem as if the past hasn’t been settled yet.
As the play opens, Fierstein emerges fully-clothed from the bathroom’s shower, looking exactly like Harvey Fierstein. Never making any effort to transform himself into Abzug physically, vocally, or sartorially, other than to don one of her trademark floppy sun hats, Fierstein simply demands that the audience accept him as Abzug, which, you know, is a lot to ask of one’s imagination. It’s far more likely that most theatergoers will find it impossible to see anyone but Fierstein standing on the stage before them.
And, make no mistake, that stage belongs almost entirely to Fierstein whose larger-than-life presence not only crowds out the possibility of any other actors helping him to tell Abzug’s story but also, evidently, didn’t have enough room for significant contributions from director Kimberly Senior, lighting designer Tyler Micoleau, sound designer Jill BC Du Boff, or especially the poor costume designer Rita Ryack (Fierstein appears entirely in black, right down to his painted toenails). Only scenic designer John Lee Beatty’s seemingly ready-to-use bathroom set indicates that anyone besides Fierstein was substantially involved with the proceedings.
Curiously, although the script finds opportunities to mention some of the more famous people waiting through the night with Abzug for the final election returns, again, none of them ever make their way into the bathroom to offer a countervailing thought. It’s a missed opportunity to add some much-needed depth to Fierstein’s far too warm-and-fuzzy portrait. Even in making use of Abzug’s reputation as an inveterate name-dropper, you quickly suspect that Fierstein’s only reason for having Abzug tell the audience that Gloria Steinam, Lily Tomlin, and Shirley MacLaine are standing on the other side of the bathroom door is to make sure we absolutely understand how important she was.
Of course, Fierstein doesn’t just rely on reflected glory to make the case for Abzug’s historical relevance. More persuasively, he rattles off several of her many achievements, all of which happened in the teeth of a misogynistic headwind: earning a law degree from Columbia University, but only because the institution “needed seat-fillers while the boys were away fighting World War II”; co-founding the activist group Women Strike for Peace to protest nuclear weapons testing and drive a final stake through the heart of the House Un-American Activities Committee; and, as a U.S. Congresswoman, co-writing “the first nationwide Gay Civil Rights Bill” and becoming one of the most outspoken critics of the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, Fierstein bullet points all of this information, as if he’s helping the audience cram for a final exam on Abzug. As one might expect, it’s often about as exciting as having someone read a Wikipedia page to you.
But the real lesson Fierstein hopes to impart is only directed at the women present. He, or, that’s right, Abzug, begins by noting the morally questionable track records of every U.S. president from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Gerald Ford, while spitting out particular enmity for Richard Nixon and his ever-so-impeachable offenses. It all leads to the question of why, if “women make up the majority of the voting public,” they would elect men like Richard Nixon, or a man at all.
Methinks, this inquiry, and much of what follows it, is more about the current occupant of the White House than any previous one, which, no matter who Fierstein is pretending to be, still ends up coming off like mansplaining.
Bella Bella (extended through December 1, 2019)
Manhattan Theatre Club
New York City Center – Stage I, 131 West 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.bellabellaplay.com
Running time: one hour and thirty minutes with no intermission