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Off-Broadway Review: “Bella Bella” at Manhattan Theatre Club’s New York City Center Stage I (Through Sunday December 1, 2019)

Off-Broadway Review: “Bella Bella” at Manhattan Theatre Club’s New York City Center Stage I (Through Sunday December 1, 2019)
Written and Performed by Harvey Fierstein
Directed by Kimberly Senior
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

There are times during Harvey Fierstein’s performance in his “Bella Bella,” currently playing at Manhattan Theatre Club’s New York City Center Stage I, that the audience is convinced – sans dress, sans hat, sans props – that he is the iconic social activist “Battling Bella.” When Mr. Fierstein channels Bella’s admonitions about the “voice of the people” superseding the importance of leadership or her differentiation between “transform” and “transfer,” the audience is “hearing” those words being spoken by Ms. Abzug. The response is authentic and somewhat surreal.

To construct his engaging account of Bella Abzug, hold up in her room in the Summit Hotel at the corner of Lexington and 51st awaiting the results of her 1976 Democratic Primary run against Daniel Patrick Moynihan for an open Senate seat, Mr. Fierstein uses her words and works. The result is a compelling pastiche of Abzug’s thoughts on local and national politics, feminism, systemic racism, homophobia, as well as a detailed rehearsal of her many legislative successes and cultural impacts. This playwright/actor manages to compress an iconic life into conversations with/to the audience in the confines of a hotel room.

Harvey Feinstein wisely chooses to “be” Bella Abzug and not simply “portray” her. There are no gimmicks here, no backups, no filters, no frills – just Bella. Mr. Fierstein draws on his skills of connecting with his audience to raise the rich and enduring questions raised by Ms. Abzug’s life and legacy. Deftly directed by Kimberly Senior, Fierstein moves around the Summit Hotel room and manages to create spaces and scenes far removed from Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Set designer John Lee Beatty’s well-appointed and realistic hotel room sits center stage surrounded by a detailed scaled down blue-green façade of the iconic Summit Hotel designed by Morris Lapidus that opened in 1961 – Las Vegas-esque sign and all. Looking closely at the windows of the hotel, one can occasionally see the shadows of a guests walking through their rooms. Tyler Micoleau’s lighting design and Jill BC Du Boff sound design further add to the richness of reality that pervades the entire performance.

Oscar Wilde might have been sincere when he claimed that, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” However, “Bella Bella” is neither imitation nor flattery. The play is pure emulation and deep respect for one of America’s most revered and successful politicians, activists, and champions of truth. Kudos to Harvey Fierstein for sharing this authentic and believable account of Bella Abzug in a time when it is much needed and much appreciated.


“Bella Bella’s” creative team includes John Lee Beatty (Scenic Design), Rita Ryack (Costume Design), Tyler Micoleau (Lighting Design), Jill BC Du Boff (Sound Design), and Caite Hevner (Projection Design).

“Bella Bella” runs at Manhattan Theatre Club’s New York City Center Stage I (131 West 55th Street) through Sunday December 1, 2019. For information on the performance schedule and to purchase tickets, visit Running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes without intermission.

Photo: Harvey Fierstein in “Bella Bella.” Credit: Jeremy Daniel.
Permalink | Posted by David Roberts on Tuesday, November 26, 2019