Bella Abzug spoke at my junior high school graduation, until Donna Florio’s mother told her to shut up. “This is my daughter’s graduation, not a political rally.” Abzug paused, apologized….and kept on talking for ten more minutes, caught up in the vehemence of her argument against the latest political outrage.
That’s my most vivid memory of this fiery member of Congress, anti-war activist, influential feminist, and fearless advocate that Harry Fierstein is portraying Off-Broadway at MTC in his new solo play about her life.
Fierstein’s affection for his subject is abundantly evident in Bella Bella – so much so that he seems to have turned her into himself. His Bella is as adorable a mensch as his Arnold in Torch Song Trilogy, as comic a character as the roles he’s played in such movies as Mrs. Doubtfire and Independence Day, and even a more persuasive female than his Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. This has its upside: The show is entertaining, and surely inspiring to those who have never heard about Bella Abzug before. The downside is how uncomfortably close Fierstein comes in his portrayal to the way her detractors painted her – as the colorful (i.e. trivial) figure who always wore hats.
Bella Bella is set on Primary Night in 1976, when Bella is waiting to find out whether the voters have chosen her to be the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senator from New York. She is hanging out in the bathroom. Why the bathroom? “Where the hell else would I be? You’ve heard of backroom politics and bedroom politics? Welcome to bathroom politics.”
All that’s missing is the Borscht Belt drummer’s rim shot. Indeed, her patter is sprinkled with dozens of Yiddish phrases, like a Catskills resort comic.
Bella spends the rest of the evening in the bathroom, occasionally answering a knock on the bathroom door to talk to her husband, but mostly just talking to….us. This is the most awkward variation I’ve seen on the standard awkward set-up for a solo bioplay.
The playbill claims that what the character tells us is “from the words and works of Bella Abzug,” and one of her daughters is credited as a consultant. There is a sometimes artful, sometimes strained effort to pack into this 90-minute monologue an encyclopedia entry’s worth of biographical details. Much of it is fascinating, such as her having led the defense for two years of a famous civil rights case in Mississippi as a young lawyer in the 1950s (in which she was forced to sleep on a bench in the bus station because “hotels wouldn’t rent me a room.”) She talks about the various bills she proposed on behalf of women’s rights and gay rights, and to impeach Richard Nixon, as a member of Congress from 1971 to 1977. It’s not surprising that she’s one of the “gutsy women” that Hillary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton write about in their new book.
The play has Abzug expound on her passionate political beliefs, such as the importance of women’s participation in the political process, and her harsh criticism of every president from FDR to Gerald Ford.
There is no question that Fierstein largely shares Bella Abzug’s political beliefs, and much of her political passion. But from the beginning of his mainstream success, Fierstein has tried to win over his audience to his political point of view (mostly concerning gay rights) by charming them, amusing them.
And so that initial gratuitous bathroom joke is just the first of many one-liners. Bella makes frequent jokes about her personality and her appearance. When she eats candy and soda, she says “I’ve had worse things in my mouth. L’chaim” – which is an exact line from Boys in the Band (except for the L’chaim.)
She recounts a political comment she made that she instantly regretted, and the snarky rejoinder by the press secretary of her main rival for the nomination, Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “A print dress does not a lady make.”
Bella looks outraged. “Let me tell you something,” she says. “I don’t wear prints. Do you know how big I look in prints?”
Fierstein delivers this expertly, with all the right pauses and facial expressions, and it gets the laugh.
Perhaps all these one-liners really are from Bella Abzug’s actual “words and works.” But she surely didn’t deliver them all together in 90 minutes standing in a bathroom.
Some might argue that it’s odd that Bella’s words of female empowerment are put into the mouth of a male actor. I’m not prepared to make that argument. I also see a difference between the sexism that resulted in a widespread caricature of Abzug during her lifetime and Fierstein’s well-meaning effort to make her adorable.
But I do compare Bella Bella with Gloria, the bio-drama about Abzug’s friend Gloria Steinem, and What The Constitution Means to Me, Heidi Schreck’s personal feminist take on the promise and disappointments of our nation’s guiding document. These two recent plays share with Bella Bella similar politics, and even a somewhat similar mixture of tones, but only Bella Bella left me ambivalent. I missed the real Bella.
Bella Bella is on stage at New York City Center (131 W 55th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues,
New York, NY, 10019) through December 1, 2019.