By Sandi Durell
And such is the setting for the fierce and feisty Bella Abzug, know for her numerous hats and years of activism as a leading feminist lawyer who fought the battles for women and the less fortunate – the true liberal of the day. Harvey Fierstein, a great friend and admirer of Bella, has written and performs this tribute piece – large red hat in hand – as he channels the famous female innovator who demanded justice and equality for all.
It’s the eve of her election 1976–the Democratic primary running as New York State’s first female Senator and she is brimming with stats, facts and figures, Yiddishisms and a litany of why the country needs women to solve its problems as evidenced in her campaign slogan – – “A woman’s place is in the house – the House of Representatives.”
In order to stay calm, Bella has chosen to remain in the cluttered bathroom (designed by John Lee Beatty) as votes come in from the various districts when she occasionally opens the door to speak with her unseen husband Martin who is in the outer room at the hotel with their daughters and supporters along with her best friends Shirley MacLaine, Lily Tomlin and Gloria Steinem.
She stems the tides of nervousness with a stream of consciousness, speaking directly to the audience, that lasts approximately 90 minutes, as thoughts of the past emerge including topics of abortion, politics and more politics, the loss of Robert Kennedy, calling for Trickie Dickie Nixon’s impeachment (adding more current references), Vietnam, thoughts on childhood raised as an intellectual and her first run for president – of her third grade class- studying law at Columbia, passing the bar yet being mistaken for a secretary (until she started wearing hats and gloves), girdles and why she was called “the iron maiden,” swimming in the Congressional swimming pool only reserved for men. She reminisces on Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Betty Friedan (her sisters were pretty). She speaks about the horrors of fighting the Jim Crow laws in Mississippi as a young lawyer for Willie McGee in the late 40’s (a black man having a consensual affair with a white woman), describing the horrors of the traveling electric chair.
Bella (the undeniably one and only Harvey) roars with humor recalling campaigning at the Continental Baths – the gay men wrapped with towels around their waists held together with Bella buttons! And she dreams of what it would be like to be the first woman President – a cabinet of women along with an all-female Supreme Court.
As directed by Kimberly Senior, expert storyteller Fierstein delivers a gushing monologue as a love letter to Bella, his gravely voice occasionally slipping away, his reverence never diminishing, his charming appeal never waning filled with facial expressions to die for as he even provides a sexy imitation of Marlene Dietrich, drinks Dr. Brown’s Cel-ray soda while munching a Twizzler and loses the election, by a slim margin, to Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
And so the bathroom scene ends as Bella sincerely remarks “Women are simply more fluid.”
Photos: Jeremy Daniel
For the love of Harvey, for the history, for the laughs and humor do get a ticket to see Bella Bella at NYC Center Stage 1 at Manhattan Theatre Club (MTC), running thru December 1. www.bellabellaplay.com www.manhattantheatreclub.com