Harvey Fierstein Takes On New York Politics in Bella Bella
Fierstein plays the real-life politician Bella Abzug in a new solo show.
If there was ever a show that played to the tastes of the Manhattan Theatre Club crowd, it's Harvey Fierstein's Bella Bella. Celebrity star? Check. Politically left-leaning and easy to swallow? You bet. Eager to earn gasps at revelations and hisses at controversies? Definitely. This new solo play preaches to the choir really well — but that doesn't make it good theater.
Bella Bella is the story of Bella Abzug, the New York politician who served three terms in the House of Representatives during the 1970s. A feminist and civil rights activist, and a proud Russian-Jew from the Bronx, Abzug was a political firebrand who introduced legislation that demanded American withdrawal from Vietnam on her first day in office. While Abzug wasn't the first female congressperson, the tenacity that earned her the nickname "Battling Bella" inspired a generation of women who currently hold office today.
In Fierstein's play, Abzug is hanging in the bathroom at the biggest party of the fall. It's primary night 1976, and a ballroom filled with people is waiting for her to speak. She's too afraid to hear what the election returns have wrought, even though she knows deep down that she'll lose the Senate nomination to Daniel Patrick Moynihan. So Bella's in the bathroom by herself, and she's got a story to tell us about her life.
In Kimberly Senior's production, Abzug is played by Fierstein. This isn't a Hairspray situation, though. Fierstein isn't done up in camp-tastic Edna Turnblad finery. The party line for the show is that he's just "channeling" Abzug, sans wink, sans makeup, so Rita Ryack costumes him in stage blacks. It's the better option, but it's still a baffling choice for a play that is intrinsically about the way women are constantly subjugated.
It's always enjoyable to watch Fierstein onstage, but the chief problem here is that he isn't really giving a performance. You're always aware that you're watching Harvey Fierstein, except this time, his vocal croak has a Yiddish lilt. His acting just doesn't go very deep — at points, it seems like he doesn't even have all the lines down — and while his obvious fondness for the late Abzug is on display, it makes you wonder why a woman isn't playing the character, which could be a powerhouse role for an older female performer.
Fierstein's lack of theatricality highlights a similar lack in the script. A more muscular performance, be it male, female, or genderqueer, would have been able to compensate for the fundamental lack of drama. Instead, Bella Bella just sticks to the surface, becoming a recitation of career highlights and lowlights, a basic assessment of the failings in our political system, and a tour-de-force vehicle in need of a driver.