You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Off Broadway Review: Harvey Fierstein’s ‘Bella Bella’

Fierstein wrote this homage to legendary New York politician Bella Abzug -- and plays her, too.

Harvey Fierstein.

1 hour 30 minutes

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.”

Popular on Variety

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.

Feinstein 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.

Off Broadway Review: Harvey Fierstein's 'Bella Bella'

Manhattan Theater Club / City Center; 300 seats; $139 top. Harvey Fierstein penned and plays this homage to Bella Abzug. Opened Oct. 22, 2019. Reviewed Oct. 17. Running time: ONE HOUR, 30 MIN.

Production: A Manhattan Theater Club production of a play in one act written and performed by Harvey Fierstein from the words and works of Bella Abzug.

Creative: Directed by Kimberly Senior. Set, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Rita Ryack; lighting, Tyler Micoleau; sound, Jill BC Du Boff; projections, Caite Hevner, production stage manager, Laura Smith.

Cast: Harvey Fierstein.

More Legit

  • The Underlying Chris review

    Off Broadway Review: 'The Underlying Chris'

    Will Eno, the playwright behind “Thom Pain (based on nothing)” and “The Realistic Joneses,” goes full ­­existential in his ambitious new play, “The Underlying Chris,” by following an Everyperson character named Chris/Christine/Christopher, et al, from cradle to grave. Disconcertingly at first, this protean person is alternately played by both male and female performers. But before [...]

  • & Juliet review

    West End Review: '& Juliet'

    From “Wicked” to “Waitress,” female empowerment has been a boon for musical theater. But where those shows veered between sincerely earnest and earnestly sincere, “& Juliet” gleefully goes for broke putting gender on the agenda as it yokes pop milestones from the likes of Britney Spears, Katy Perry and Celine Dion to a girl-power revamp [...]

  • Ephraim Sykes participates in the 73rd

    Michael Jackson Musical Finds Its King of Pop

    Tony Award nominee Ephraim Sykes will moonwalk on Broadway, playing Michael Jackson in “MJ The Musical.” The show, which its the Great White Way after a rocky gestation. It begins previews on July 6, 2020, at the Neil Simon Theatre with an official opening set for Aug. 13. Sykes is currently appearing in another pop [...]

  • A Christmas Carol review

    Broadway Review: 'A Christmas Carol'

    Those expecting a traditional take on Charles Dickens’ classic holiday perennial may be in for a shock at the new Broadway version of “A Christmas Carol.” Or at least they might be terribly perplexed by this dour production, whose additions only subtract from the potency of the transformative tale. While there have been many adaptations [...]

  • Timothee Chalamet poses for photographers at

    Timothée Chalamet to Make London Stage Debut With Eileen Atkins in '4000 Miles'

    Timothee Chalemet is set to take to the London stage for the first time, appearing next spring in Amy Herzog’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated play “4000 Miles.” Matthew Warchus will direct the production at The Old Vic, which will also star Eileen Atkins (“The Crown,” “Gosford Park”). The play opens April 2020. It turns on the story [...]

  • Jonathan Groff

    Listen: Jonathan Groff Knows He's a Spitter

    If you’ve seen “Little Shop of Horrors” — the starry revival headlined by Jonathan Groff in a small Off Broadway theater — you probably noticed that Groff spits a lot when he speaks onstage. He’ll be the first to tell you that he’s been a spitter as long as he can remember, but “Little Shop” [...]

  • Key Largo

    L.A. Theater Review: Andy Garcia in 'Key Largo'

    Would “Casablanca” make a good play? Guess what: It was first produced on stage as “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.” How about “Key Largo,” the black-and-white Bogie-and-Bacall vehicle in which a handful of misfits find themselves trapped in a South Florida hotel while a hurricane rages outside? In fact, the 1948 John Huston film was adapted [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content