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Bella Bella

. . . to my grave I will defend the right of a woman to be an unqualified asshole and still become President just like a man. — One of many words actually spoken by the feisty politician Bella Abzug, as portrayed by Harvey Fierstein in the solo play he also wrote.
Solo plays have enjoyed increasing popularity and prestige. This genre's heightened prominence included a Pulitzer Prize ( I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright ) and prompted me to write a 2-part feature, Solo Play Part 1 & Solo Play Part 2. Which brings me to Bella Bella, Harvey Fierstin's new solo play about , Bellla Abzug (1920-1998) , the ahead of her time lawyer and politician.

But first, a brief pause for a reminder about the full disclosure note with which I prefaced that solo play feature; in it I acknowledged my preference for a play that calls for at least two actors on stage. That preference for a multi character rather than solo play still holds. But so does the fact that I'm always ready to be smitten by a compelling subject and a charismatic soloist.

Bella Bella has all the elements to join previous such memorable mind changers.

For starters there's Fierstein. Besides Torch Song Trilogy, his first outing as the star of his own play, he's continued to deliver outstanding performances and scripts . Consequently any chance to hear his gravelly voice and watch him create another finely nuanced character is a not to be missed opportunity. To have that character's story also scripted by him, promises to be a theatrical trip to an old-fashioned candy store for a Sunday with all the trimmings.

As for Bella Abzug, the colorful, outspoken New Yorker who just missed being our first female Senator in 1976, does indeed have a compelling and timely story to tell. Like "Battling Bella" women still habr enough issues to deal with to seed the #MeToo movement. But, thanks to the likes of Abzug and Gloria Steinem, women are more fully represented in both houses of Congress — one almost made it to the White House, and several are now battling to actually make it in 2020.

Thanks to the published speeches and writings of Abzug and shared remembrances of her daughters and others who loved her, Bella Bella is filled to the brim with Abzug's trenchant wit and wisdom. For older theater goers it's a trip down memory lane that spans many administrations, detailing presidential good deeds as well as the all too frequent surrenders to political expediency. Naturally, these memories focus on Bella, as well as her fellow fighters for peace, women's empowerment and civil rights.

For millenials Bellla Bella is an enlightening history lesson — an introduction to a woman dedicated to fair play for all Americans. ..

Mr Fierstein has structured his bio-drama to play out at a pivotal point in Abzug's life: the night in 1976 that would decide whether Abzug would win her bid to be New York State's Senator. As a politician to whom being in Congress is not about securing a prestigious sinecure with a pension , but to get things done to make the world a better place. Having managed to do a lot after two terms in the House where she was one of four hundred and thirty-five with a staff of eighteen, the Senate seat is a really big deal. As she sees it becoming one of only a hundred but with a staff of nearly eighty, "We can change the world!" As for a win also making her the Senate's first woman member, she's had a nifty ad to help her make it happen: A photo of a hundred men staring up from the Senate floor and a caption reading "A stag Senate is a Stag-nation."

Of course theater goers up on their history know how this night we spend with Bella will end. Much of what she tells us about her life is peppered with laugh lines. The opening section especially is a bit like a late night show host's warm-up routines. Yet Bella Bella is very much a cautionary tale. Hillary Clinton can certainly confirm that. Elizabeth Warren, take note!

Marissa Jaret Winokur as Tracy Turnblad and   Harvey Fierstein  as  Edna Turnblad
Harvey Fierstein and Marissa Jaret Winokur) in Hairspray
The structural set-up works well enough to bring Bella-cum-Harvey Fierstein on stage to talk about what's happening and what in Bella's life led up to it. So the big question is whether Fierstein is the right choice to play her.

It's not that he hasn't played a woman before. His Edna Turnblad in Hairspray was delightful. But as Bella Abzug he's opted to give up wigs and costumes and come out wearing casual black shirt and pants and looking,. . .well just like Harvey. In his only concession to Abzug's persona he brings along one of the big hats she was famous for wearing. That hat's relevance to her being taken seriously as a professional woman is explained when she tells us about how she became a lawyer when only two percent of the bar were women, so that the other ninety-eight per cent of its lawyers assumed she was a secretary or clerk. It was her husband who suggested that she don a hat and gloves when on duty as that was not how a secretary would show up for work.

To establish the sense of this being a "regular" play even without any attempt by Fierstein to physically embody his play's title character, Manhattan Theatre Club has supported the production with an as usual top notch stage design. While the setting is a room in the Summit Hotel (now the Doubletree Metropolitan) that's filled with a host of supportive friends and family, the script calls for Bella to be in the bathroom outside that room in order to unwind. John Lea Beatty has brought his usual flair to that bathroom set. It includes a door for Bella to occasionally pause to interact with the invisible people who hope to celebrate her win.

This staged memoir certainly gives Fierstein plenty of opportunity to land the laugh lines. . . Bella's impassioned dreams. . . frequent acerbic comments on various presidents and fellow liberal cause fighters. . .as well as events requiring the actor to tap into deeper feelings (notably her efforts to keeps the Mississippi courts from executing a black man falsely accused of rape , that ended badly both for the hapless man and Bella's own pregnancy).

There's no question that Fierstein knows how to deliver a joke and also tap into a character's emotion. But his choice as to how to present himself did have me wondering whether Bella's story would have come off with a more dramatic bang with Fierstein in drag — or if Patti LuPone or Bette Midler had been available to don Bella's hat, and Kimberly Senior could have found more ways to heighten the dramatic impact.

Since Gloria Steinem is one of the friends waiting next to that bathroom hoping to celebrate their new senator, it's Emily Mann's recent Gloria: A Life that best explains why Bella Bella somehow doesn't make it into my memory book of solo plays that changed my mind about preferring to see at least one other character on stage. Though the Steinem play also coveriea lot of ground in just 90 minutes and with revolved around Steinem, Diane Paulus somehow managed to make it a terrifically moving and original theatrical experience for the audience.

That said, , Bella Abzug's story does resonate powerfully at a time when we need politicians dedicated to the good of the country rather than themselves more than ever. And so, to borrow a lyric from Fiddler on the Roof in which Fierstein played Teyve more than a dozen years ago (review). . . it would indeed be "wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles" if Bella Abzug could somehow come back to life long enough to throw that big hat into the ring and really make America great again.

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Bella Bella written and performed by Harvey Fierstein
Directed by Kimberly Senior
Scenic design:John Lee Beatty
CostumeDesign: Rita Ryack
Lighting Design: Tyler Micoleau
Sound Design:Jill BC Du Boff
Projection Design: Caite Hevner
Stage Manager: Laura Smith
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center – Stage I 131 West 55th St.
From 10/20/19; opening 10/22/19; closing 12/30/19.
Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday at 7PM; Thursday-Saturday at 8PM; Matinee on Sunday at 2PM. through opening; thereafterTuesday and Sunday at 7PM; Thursday-Saturday at 8PM; Matinees on Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday at 2PM.

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