When Tyler Micoleau’s lights rise on John Lee Beatty’s version of a bathroom in NYC’s former Summit Hotel, there he is. His back to the audience, one arm akimbo, framed in an upstage shower doorway, he wears a black shirt, black trousers and a wide-brimmed red hat. No shoes, though — and his toenails are polished. Harvey Fierstein, who immediately turns to face us, is portraying the legendary New York Representative Bella Abzug. We find her at a very specific time in her busy life: Sept. 26, 1976, 2am. She has isolated herself from an election-night crowd on the other side of the door, stage right. They’re waiting to hear the results of her primary race against Daniel Patrick Moynihan for a US Senate seat.
For those who remember the event, it’s no spoiler to say that in Fierstein’s solo play, Bella Bella, now running at Off-Broadway’s Manhattan Theatre Club, she doesn’t prevail — at least not at the polls. But Fierstein is undaunted: his campaign is to see Abzug triumph. To do so, he draws exclusively on recorded remarks of Abzug’s from throughout her decades-long career. (Abzug’s daughter, Liz, serves as a consultant to the production.)
While Fierstein only speaks Abzug’s words (and perhaps the occasional extra conjunction), he doesn’t deliver a gesture-for-gesture impersonation. Indeed, the real-life Abzug didn’t traffic in exaggerated gestures, whereas Fierstein’s portrayal definitely does. Nor did the somewhat mellifluous Abzug speak with a baritone-bass rasp — the one Fierstein has presented in roles as disparate as Arnold Beckoff in his Torch Song Trilogy, Edna Turnblad in Hairspray and Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Yet we know that Abzug stood forever at the ready to raise the volume on her mellifluousness. So in a black outfit — minus that wide-brimmed hat, an Abzug trademark, removed almost immediately — Fierstein “Abzug-lutely” honors her thoughts on many subjects — most significantly women’s rights and civil rights.
As Fierstein circulates compulsively around this sizable bathroom, a red, distinctly Abzug-like suit hangs on a wall. He gives the impression of leaving out few, if any, of her many words, and belittles nothing while including some of the less well-remembered moments of Abzug’s extraordinary career. For example, there was Abzug’s fight with American Express. Did you know that it took until 1974 for women to be guaranteed the legal right to financial autonomy, including the right to own a credit card without a husband’s permission?
At one point, the play jumps back to 1948, to recall a harsh episode that is also less well-remembered. For the better part of three years, Abzug commuted to Mississippi to defend Willie McGee, an African American accused of raping a white woman. Giving no ground to the opposition, she did her best to ignore death threats. She persevered, but lost the case: McGee was executed in 1951. Due to pregnancy, Abzug couldn’t attend McGee’s execution. The experience ignited her fight for civil rights.
And Abzug, of course, was famously undaunted in her fight for women’s rights. Among her compatriots was Susan Brownmiller, whose 1975 Against Our Will was a bestseller then; , Brownmiller’s controversial take on the 1955 murder of Emmett Till almost certainly makes it more unpalatable today. Fierstein’s Abzug also invokes NYC activist Ronnie Eldridge. And she banters about Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, whose garrulousness triggers a few choice comments. Abzug reiterates that she originally co-chaired the National Women’s Political Caucus in which Steinem and Friedan were members. In this capacity, she wasn’t shy in her belief that since a majority of US voters are women (then and certainly now), women’s rights must be no less than absolute and essential — and especially in Congress.
Fierstein’s Abzug makes a big deal of her Jewishness as well, and her particular lexicon is a pungent element of Bella Bella, with any number of words and phrases peppering the script that might show up in the writing of Leo Rosten (assignment: look up mittendrinen). When mentioning President Richard Nixon, she spits three times — in accordance with the Jewish tradition that expels bad spirits.
Needless to say, Fierstein hasn’t devoted himself to Bella Bella to criticize Abzug. Rather, he’s entirely behind her version of liberalism, through which she made many enemies. At one point she speaks of her “frenemy” relationship with conservative NYC radio host and politician Barry Farber, who she defeated in her first race for Congress in 1970.
Directed with Abzug-ian flair by Kimberly Senior, Fierstein doesn’t really get around to the allegations of Communist sympathy that were sometimes hurled Abzug’s way. Those had mostly to do with her affiliations during World War II, and suspicious-to-some affiliations afterward. The FBI listed her as a sympathizer, but very little went further for the record. She doesn’t seem to show up, for example, in the infamous pages of Red Channels.
Viewed from a certain perspective, Fierstein’s Abzug is thus a natural creation. It may even be said that what Abzug was to politics, Fierstein is to the theater: widely beloved as well as appreciated for unflagging, unquestionable honesty. It’s undeniable that, at the curtain call, the hearty applause is for Fierstein and Abzug. Their meeting seems all but inevitable.
So, nu? Is there anything wrong with Bella Bella? Yes, one thing. At one point, Abzug brings attention to a large hatbox on wheels. We’re led to believe that inside it must be more attention-getting toppers. But it’s never opened, and my guess is that Rita Ryack, the costume designer, wishes it were. At such a neglected opportunity, Abzug might have spit three times.