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Theater review by Adam Feldman
“I’m what you call a schreier,” explains Bella Abzug in Harvey Fierstein’s solo show Bella Bella, a lively and deeply affectionate portrait of the hat-wearing, barrier-breaking 1970s liberal firebrand. That’s a Yiddishism—Fierstein’s script is generously schmeared with them—and it means that she’s the kind of person who yells. As a woman trying to break through the doors of American political culture, she didn’t have much choice. “The rules of the patriarchy were not invented to include us,” she says. “They were, in fact, designed to exclude us. If we wanted to be heard, we had to be loud.” As a three-term U.S. Congresswoman from New York City, she raised her voice against the war in Vietnam and for the impeachment of Richard Nixon. Bella Bella finds her waiting for her entrance onto an even larger stage: It is the night of the 1976 Democratic primary for an open Senate seat, and she is sequestered in the bathroom of a fancy hotel, waiting for the votes to be tallied. (At the time, there were no women in the Senate at all.) But it was not meant to be: Abzug lost in a squeaker to the more moderate Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Shouting only gets you so far if people won’t listen.
“I’ve never entered a race I didn’t win,” Abzug claims. “Eventually.” Since many of her races are still being run, their batons having been passed to the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bella Bella feels politically relevant, if always a little bit strange. Although much of the play, which draws heavily from Abzug’s own writings and public statements, is explicitly concerned with the importance of women’s representation, Fierstein is the one who performs it. Dressed in a simple black shirt and pants, with no gesture toward drag, he avoids any hint of burlesque, and his portrait of Abzug is informative and respectful throughout, but there’s an unavoidable incongruity in the fact of Fierstein’s male presentation. The tradeoff for this is Fierstein himself: He’s so distinctive a performer (that dragonish voice! that naughty smile!) and so immensely appealing as Abzug—he gives her a more Yiddish accent than she had in real life, the better to endear himself to the audience with warm Jewish humor—that it’s hard to imagine the role being played by anyone else. “Everyone told me they’d never go for me,” his Abzug says. “But I said, ‘Fuck you. I’m lovable.’ ”
Manhattan Theatre Club (Off Broadway). By Harvey Fierstein. Directed by Kimberly Senior. With Fierstein. Running time: 1hr 25mins. No intermission.