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Theatre in Review: Bella Bella (Manhattan Theatre Club/City Center Stage I)

Harvey Fierstein. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

The new entertainment at Manhattan Theatre Club's Off-Broadway venue is advertised as Harvey Fierstein appearing as Bella Abzug. In fact, it is Harvey Fierstein appearing as Harvey Fierstein. If you are fine with that, you will most likely have a good time.

Fierstein, Broadway's most famous female impersonator since Julian Eltinge turned in his wig and girdle, decided to pen a solo show about the pioneer feminist politician and all-around New York character of the 1970s, known for her extravagant hats and rabble-rousing ways. According to a recent Times interview with the playwright and director, Kimberly Senior, Patti LuPone did a bang-up early reading but was otherwise engaged. From there, it was a short step to Fierstein himself taking on the role.

One imagines that the Juilliard-trained LuPone would have offered a more-straight-up characterization than Fierstein, who relies on the mannerisms that made him a Broadway icon: the sandpaper voice that ranges from the most insinuating of whispers to the fury of Moses hurling the sacred tablets at a clutch of sinners; the naughty-child face, combined with hands raised in supplication, when raising delicate matters; and the whiplash way with a wisecrack that leaves nobody in the room standing. He first appears, framed in a shower stall, in a shirt-and-slacks combination by costume designer Rita Ryack, topped by one of Abzug's signature hats, but otherwise his outfit could have come from the men's department at Barney's. As he insisted to the Times, "I don't play a woman. I am a woman." Well, that's debatable.

In any case, Bella Bella never escapes the artifice of the solo bio-play format, which usually ends up as a kind of dramatized résumé. The conceit of Fierstein's script is that it is the night of the Democratic primary in 1976, when Abzug, who has been serving in Congress, is trapped in a five-way race. Nervous about the results and avoiding her supporters, she has holed up in a bathroom at the Summit Hotel, reliving the events of her career. We learn about her rise from "this mythical creature, a female Jewish lawyer," to sought-after campaign adviser and, eventually, a candidate herself, at every turn causing controversy with her outspoken manner.

As history lessons go, it's reasonably informative, albeit loaded with easy laughs and button-pushing applause lines. Some of her more specious arguments are likely to raise eyebrows: "Flexibility: the willingness to let go of a position that is no longer sustainable is not an attribute found in male leadership," she announces. Unlike, say, Margaret Thatcher or Theresa May? Or, perhaps, Betsy DeVos or Kellyanne Conway? Later, commenting about Vietnam, she adds, "You can argue with me all you'd like, you'll never convince me that three female presidents in a row would have kept that war going," adding a swipe at "the male ego." Such debatable statements -- remember Hillary Clinton voting to invade Iraq? -- go down with the MTC audience like a glass of the Cel-Ray tonic Abzug sips onstage.

The most entertaining parts of Bella Bella are the title character's frequently dishy insights about herself and others. She notes that she adopted the famous hats (along with gloves) at the suggestion of her husband, who felt it would create a more professional impression among the legal clients who frequently mistook her for part of the secretarial staff. (She adds that she travels light except for the hatbox, an enormous metal silo that bears plenty of scuff marks from frustrated staffers who have been scalded by her blunt criticisms.) She drops plenty of names, including Gloria Steinem and Shirley MacLaine, and offers priceless jokes about Richard Nixon and Elizabeth Taylor. Commenting cattily on Betty Friedan, she notes, "Even when Betty's doing the right thing, she is always a little off. To support Shirley Chisholm's run for president -- the first black woman to attempt such a thing -- Betty went out on the streets of Harlem and sold watermelons." The story about her campaigning at the Continental Baths -- the notorious gay hangout of the period -- making her pitch to an audience of men wearing only towels held up with Bella buttons, is one for the books.

And she makes unmistakably clear that her indomitable will came from battling reactionary attitudes on many fronts. On her graduation day from law school, her mother told her, "Lawyers work so hard. Better you should have been an actress." Defending Willie McGee, accused of rape in Mississippi for what was really a longtime consensual affair with a white woman, she became such a figure of notoriety that she was unable to dine in public or find decent accommodations. "One night, having no safe place to sleep, I had to stay in the ladies' room at the courthouse, lifting my feet up every time the guards came through." The accumulated stress of the trial, which climaxed in McGee's botched execution, caused her to miscarry.

And, very much a woman of her time, she turned the tables on the press, using their colorful, if derogatory, accounts to craft an indelible public persona. Quoting one story -- "She's got the shoulders of a steampipe fitter and the strut of a plainclothes cop. She'll give you a chop to the ribs, then powder her nose while you sag to the floor" -- she adds, "Sexist? Sure. But also the stuff of which legends are made."

Still, her very real achievements -- standing up against the war, ensuring that the Pentagon Papers were added to the public record -- have to share time with second-rate vaudeville cracks: "You can't ask Jews to put money into a piggy bank," she says, adding that she chalks up her departure from Orthodox Judaism had less to do with feminism than to her taste for shrimp cocktail. Commenting on her fondness for snack foods, she says, "I've had worse things in my mouth" -- a line that is funnier when heard in The Boys in the Band.

Senior's direction keeps the pace light and lively, and she has seemingly reined in her star to good effect. John Lee Beatty's amusing set -- a hotel bathroom, the tub stocked with campaign signs, surrounded by the Summit's distinctive Populuxe façade -- is nicely supported by Tyler Micoleau's lighting. Jill BC DuBoff's sound design includes a catchy preshow hit parade of pop classics, including "Philadelphia Freedom," "Band on the Run," "I'm a Believer," and "Midnight at the Oasis." Caite Hevner's projections are reserved for the curtain call; I'll leave them to be discovered but will note that they are well-done.

In any case, nobody works a room like Harvey Fierstein. In a time dominated in part by a fraught conversation about women and power, it's good to remember how Abzug built an indelible career by demanding that her voice be heard -- even if, all these years later, a man has to play her. --David Barbour


(30 October 2019)

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