In an increasingly politicized society where one’s words can so easily be turned against you, Harvey Fierstein deserves extra credit for using the actual words of the late Bella Abzug (both in English and Yiddish) to create a finely detailed portrait of this extraordinary lady in his new play Bella Bella, now at Manhattan Theatre Club, Stage 1, at New York City Center. Moreover, while Fierstein performs the role in male clothing (albeit with red toenail-polished bare feet), he essentially transforms himself into Abzug, a woman who spent her entire life overcoming adversity.
Indeed, the play consistently reminds us of how difficult it was for Abzug to break glass ceiling after glass ceiling – only to temporarily end up on the floor when the Democratic patriarchy turned her 1976 senatorial primary into a five-way race (against four men) that she narrowly lost. The fact that Abzug chose to give up a cushy post in the House of Representatives (where she had served for only six years) to try to make a greater impact in the Senate tells us almost everything we need to know about her devotion to her beliefs.
Yet we learn so much more, about both Bella’s life and her politics. The work wisely stresses that Abzug wasn’t just a champion for women’s rights, although her numerous strides in that arena are remarkable. She was a staunch opponent of the Vietnam War (one of the many reasons she quickly made Richard Nixon’s “enemies list”); a longtime champion of civil rights – including being the lawyer early in her career for Willie McGee, a Southern black man eventually put to death for having a consensual affair with a white woman; and a major reason the Pentagon Papers eventually became public knowledge.
Still, Bella Bella is not an unqualified love letter. It unapologetically acknowledges that Abzug was hardly a saint, and the script is peppered with many not-so-nice (if often rather accurate) jabs at friends and foes alike, including Betty Friedan, Ed Koch, and a slew of Democratic presidents including FDR, JFK and LBJ. Even if the show ultimately preaches to the liberal choir that makes up much of the MTC audience, not every riposte will earn a hearty Amen.
For all of its strengths, however, the piece never fully overcomes its own natural limitations. Why is Abzug talking to “us” as she waits for the primary results in an unrealistically spacious bathroom at the Upper East Side’s Summit Hotel (designed by the great John Lee Beatty)? Does no one in the next room other than her (unseen) husband Martin really knock on that bathroom door? Plus, there’s only so much stage business director Kimberly Senior can create to undercut the static nature of the show, which can drag a bit even at 85 minutes.
Somewhat more problematically, the timeliness of the piece – which is undeniable – proves to be a bit of a double-edged sword. With the 2020 presidential primaries just months away, we all should heed Abzug’s exhortations about the importance of having women play a central part in U.S. politics, how women too often simply vote against the candidates they believe in to support the ones the men in their lives want, and how women were – and are – held to a ridiculous double standard. (“Why the hell does a woman have to be qualified when a man only has to be a man?” she asks to uproarious laughter.) Nonetheless (and perhaps inadvertently), the play sometimes seems to double as a campaign rally for Elizabeth Warren.
In truth, Abzug herself dreamed of being the first woman president. But even if she were alive today, the road to the White House would have been a tough one for her to navigate, given how her ego and hubris would probably turn off many men and some women. As Bella wryly notes at one point, “It’s hell being surrounded by people so mired in their own beliefs that they cannot admit that I am always right.” (Personally, I want that on a T-shirt!)
In short, though, hats off to the late Abzug for all she accomplished and to Fierstein for this valuable history lesson.