For any New Yorker who lived through the 1970s, it might come as a surprise that Harvey Fierstein has chosen to set his one-man tribute to Bella Abzug on the night of the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate seat in 1976 and not the far more raucous mayoral Democratic primary a year later. “Bella Bella,” in which a man playing a woman harangues us on why women are superior to men, opened Tuesday at Off Broadway’s Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center, and before the political dust has settled, it’s obvious why this playwright-performer chose the 1976 race.
Back then, Abzug wasn’t yet a loser. She had served a few years in the House of Representatives, and won those contests. In 1976, on the eve of her first defeat, she could still call her Democratic challengers a bunch of “losers.” Sound Trumpian?
Earlier in this bio-play, Fierstein’s Abzug trashes Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson, and calls Hubert H. Humphrey “recycled crap.” Sound familiar?
Back in 1968, Abzug supported Robert F. Kennedy in the Democratic primary for president. Apparently, that gave her license to berate Humphrey, even though the vice president had never befriended or been hired by Senator Joe McCarthy, as was true of Kennedy before his clashes with another Red Scare attorney, Roy Cohn.
Such political shadings are utterly lacking in “Bella Bella,” which is credited as coming “from the words and words of Bella Abzug.” The play makes very clear that Abzug loathed and fought McCarthy. Did she ever address Bobby Kennedy’s early embrace of the scoundrel senator from Wisconsin? If so, Fierstein doesn’t go there.
This simple black-and-white view of politics, not to mention of life in general, could explain why Abzug didn’t win any bigger elections than the House. It might even explain her tragic flaw as a candidate for senator and then mayor. But according to “Bella Bella,” she lost those back-to-back races because of her gender. Period.
As with so many preaching-to-the-choir plays on the New York stage these days, “Bella Bella” is a MAGA rally for voters on the other end of the political spectrum.
Fierstein fans will be happy to learn that Kimberly Senior doesn’t direct the star. She lets him retreat into his usual cute shtick. Letting go a zinger, Fierstein crocks his head to the right, sometimes to the left, cueing the laughter with his signature Cheshire-kitty smile even when there’s not a giggle in the house. Much more strange, Fierstein portrayal keeps recalling his performance as Teyve in the 2004 Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Check out Abzug’s cameo in Woody Allen’s “Manhattan.” She doesn’t speak with a Yiddish accent and she doesn’t stoop to being adorable.