Applause is guaranteed when Harvey Fierstein makes his appearance as the late Bella Abzug wearing a signature red floppy hat. That’s the only costume suggestion of his being a woman. No dress--just regular male clothing. But when Fierstein begins to speak, there is a tone that reminds one of Abzug’s strong voice that added conviction to whatever political point she was making, especially her advocacy as an ardent feminist.
The time is September of 1976, when Bella was holed up in the bathroom of a room in the Summit Hotel in New York waiting for election results in her losing primary battle to become a U. S. senator from New York. Abzug, who died in 1988 at the age of 77, served as a Congresswoman from New York from 1971 to 1977 and in her lifetime earned and fulfilled her reputation as a political firebrand.
“Bella Bella,” presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club and directed by Kimberly Senior, has been written by Fierstein from Abzug’s words and works. The format during 90 minutes without an intermission is a confessional recounting of her life, causes and battles coming from the lady herself channeled by Fierstein.
This being New York, statements reflecting her liberal commitment draw special applause from the crowd, such as her statement that “a woman’s place is in the house—the House of Representatives.” Many in an audience will be old enough to remember Abzug.
I was once in a small meeting with Bella and a few others in an apartment where strategy was planned for a cause that she and I supported. She dominated the room, adamant about what she firmly suggested doing, overriding what anyone else said. It might just as well have been a one-woman meeting. But she could be absolutely counted on for her vital help.
Fierstein is remarkable as this liberal icon. He holds our attention, makes the most of injected humor and creates an intimacy that can make one who never met Abzug get a sense of what she was like.
The performance is another plus in Fierstein’s career, and it is especially welcome at this time of need to celebrate women who have made a difference and to inspire others, women and men, to follow the Abzug tradition by fighting today’s political battles in this age of Trump. At New York City Center Stage I, 131 West 55th Street. Reviewed October 30, 2019.