Harvey Fierstein is one busy guy. A Broadway institution with four Tony Awards for acting (“Torch Song Trilogy,” “Hairspray”) and playwriting (“Torch Song Trilogy,” “La Cage aux Folles”), he has also written everything from teleplays (“The Wiz Live!”, “Hairspray Live!”) to an award-winning children’s book, “The Sissy Duckling.” His movie work includes “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Independence Day.” His distinctively raspy voice can also be heard on animated films like “Mulan” and TV series like “Family Guy.”
In this context, “Bella Bella,” his one-man show based on “the words and works” of the New York Congresswoman and seminal feminist Bella Abzug, is clearly a work of hero worship — a labor of love, now making its world premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club.
Fierstein doesn’t play Bella in full drag. A huge hat (the politician’s trademark) is a prominent feature of John Lee Beatty’s realistic setting of a New York City hotel room, and be assured that the actor will eventually wear it like the “proud woman” Bella declares herself to be. But costumer Rita Ryack keeps the actor in basic black leisurewear for most of this 90-minute monologue, and it’s a smart choice, maintaining our focus on the text rather than on flashy costume changes.
The entire show takes place at 2 a.m. in a bland bathroom in Manhattan’s Summit Hotel. The date — September 1976 — is significant because that’s when this ardent feminist made her bid to became the first female Senatorial candidate from the state of New York. “You’ve heard of backroom politics and bedroom politics?” Bella asks, wryly. “Welcome to bathroom politics.”
Several people are holding their breath outside that bathroom door — Gloria Steinem, Lily Tomlin and Shirley MacLaine, among them — waiting for Bella to calm her nerves and step out to greet her family, friends, staff, and constituents. But with five Democrats competing in the primary, this is actually a very tight race, and she’s too seasoned a pro to take anything for granted. “God forbid I should do anything the easy way,” she acknowledges. “How many people get themselves into a five-way primary?”
It’s quite fun watching this ground-breaking politician squirm. But history speaks for itself, and since New Yorkers know the outcome of this Congressional primary, there’s no real reason to bite our fingernails waiting for the final vote count. What we can do is luxuriate in the company of this inspiring politician and remarkable human being, one of the earliest and most prominent of female political activists.
Come to think of it, MTC subscribers are probably of an age to have first-hand memories of Bella’s political career, with its brilliant motto: “A woman’s place is in the house — the House of Representatives.” But when Bella was running for Congress, almost 50 years ago, the Women’s Movement had yet to fully capitalize on the ardor of its supporters in the National Women’s Political Caucus, spearheaded by renowned feminists like Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Shirley Chisholm. And if Bella should manage to win her race, she, like other female senators, would be forced to sit in the balcony of the Senate.
Fierstein couldn’t be more sympathetic to some of Bella’s heartbreakingly close political losses. But with such affection for his role model, he almost makes us forget that she lost more fights than she won — including a tragic failure to keep Willie McGee, a black man from Mississippi convicted of rape, from the electric chair in 1945.
In hindsight, she was always in battle mode for some unpopular liberal cause (the Equal Rights Amendment, civil rights, gay rights). As Bella herself once put it: “I was born to rebel against the establishment.” And New York Democrats are duty-bound to remember and honor her legacy.