Harvey Fierstein photos by Jeremy Daniel
Multiple-Tony-winning Harvey Fierstein has entered the pantheon of
stars so famous, they only have one name: Bette. Barbra. Bernadette. Harvey.
The show may be called Bella Bella, and be about the marvelous Mrs.
Abzug, but it’s really All Harvey, All the Time; it’s as if director Kimberly
Senior held on for dear life and let the show happen.
H*A*R*V*E*Y!! A presence so huge, with that elastic face in all
its mobile magnificence. That gravelly/muddy/distinctive voice! Those eyebrows!
Who wouldn’t want to spend an hour and change basking in the sunshine of Harvey
Fierstein’s magnificent presence, impeccable timing, simmering anger?
Anger? Yes, indeed. Bella was a notable fighter, a “schreier,” as
she calls it (“I may have been known to throw things”). Battling Bella was the
original social justice warrior, who championed causes and fought injustice
back when that could get you jailed or killed. She picked fights with the
establishment over unions, civil rights, gay rights, unpopular political
parties, and of course and always, women. Bella grew from being a nice Jewish
girl from New York, to a lawyer, to a community organizer to a politician,
working her way up to a seat in Congress. She always won – eventually, as she
Until 1976, in the primary race for the Democrat candidate for
Senate from New York. To hear Harvey-as-Bella tell it, she had pissed off
enough powerful men (politicians, press, that crowd) that the candidates in
that primary field were four men and her. She lost by fewer than 10,000 votes.
And she never won an election again.
Bella Bella is set on the night of that primary, in the
bathroom of the Summit Hotel, as she waits for results to come in. Not doubting
for a moment that she’ll win, she direct-addresses the audience from John Lee
Beatty’s marvelous set (never has a NYC hotel bathroom looked so good). Harvey
adroitly gives us brash Bella, brainy Bella, bullying Bella. But when, at the
moment of the realization that she’s in trouble, and he telegraphs her interior
mindset perfectly, Harvey has never been better.
That’s good, because otherwise, if you have any recollection of
Bella Abzug at all, you’ll notice that she’s oddly absent from Bella Bella,
even though she’s the only character on stage. No matter how much you may
admire Harvey, it’s just plain awkward to have a personality so strong playing,
well, a strong personality: it just doesn’t work. It took a lot to make Bella
Abzug disappear. Harvey managed it in one shot, while trying to do her homage.
Mrs. Abzug may be a fun role for Harvey, but he ain’t Bella.
Perhaps some of that is due to him not performing in drag. Interestingly, Rita
Ryack’s costume design puts him in plain black shirt-and-trousers, bare feet
(killer pedicure, by the way), and the biggest red hat in known space. The hat
is the only concession to Bella’s iconic appearance; she was the last of the
Great Hat Ladies.
Bella Bella is an amusing way to pass some time,
watching Harvey do a standup routine; a history lesson (for those too young to
remember Bella); a political nostalgia-fest (for the oldsters). It’s like a
juke-box musical of Bella’s greatest hits, only with Bella, rather than songs,
we get pithy commentary and harsh humor, some of it in Yiddish. Could be worse,
Written and Performed
by Harvey Fierstein
At Manhattan Theatre
City Center Stage I
W 55th St, New York, NY 10019
Through December 1
7pm; Wednesday/Saturday/Sunday 2pm; Friday/Saturday, 8pm
Tickets : Nycitycenter.org
or call City Tix (212)