Being Bella? Harvey Fierstein Doesn’t Need a Dress to Try

Should you meet Harvey Fierstein when he is taking a break from rehearsal of “Bella Bella,” his new one-person show, do not suggest he is playing a woman.

He will gasp.

He will slap his palm to his chest.

And in a voice that in real life can only be described as — actually, all the old “gravel” clichés don’t come close so let’s not try — he will growl: “I DON’T PLAY A WOMAN. I AM A WOMAN.”

Then he will sip his diet Coke and launch back into running lines for the monologue he wrote and will star in, about the feminist New York lawyer and congresswoman Bella Abzug.

Late last month in a Manhattan Theater Club rehearsal room, he stood before a plywood approximation of the real set: a bathroom of the Summit Hotel in New York City, where, for some 85 minutes, Mr. Fierstein will channel Abzug, known for her quotable, take-no-prisoners manner, as she awaited election results from her 1976 bid to become the Democratic candidate for a United States Senate seat.

She would lose by less than one percent of the vote to Daniel Patrick Moynihan. (It’s a loss that Mr. Fierstein’s script blames on The New York Times. In politics and pop culture, what’s old is new again.)

In “Bella Bella,” which is now in previews and opens Oct. 22 at Manhattan Theater Club’s City Center Stage I, Mr. Fierstein speaks as Abzug. But he doesn’t dress the part. While the set is adorned by some makeup, a hanging dress and Abzug’s famous hat, the actor wears black pants and a black shirt.

Still, it’s not without risk for a production to present a male star in what is at its core a one-woman play. Especially one about a woman who had to bob and weave her way through the patriarchy in order to make what since have been regarded as historic civic contributions.

“I am not putting on makeup, I am not putting on a wig, I’m not even a woman pretending to be Bella,” he said in an interview. “What I have to say you can trust because I am not a person here in disguise.”

Facing the play’s director, Kimberly Senior, 46, he recited his lines, in-character as Bella.

“Women are simply more fluid,” he said, eyes wide, hands gesturing and intonation straight out of the Lower East Side. “We adjust. We consider not only the goal ahead but the reality of the ground below our feet. We’re not wedded to the policies of the past because, frankly, we had nothing to do with creating them. We see things men don’t seem to even notice because we aren’t wasting our time defending our masculinity.”

Mr. Fierstein, 65, adapted much of the language in the show from Abzug’s speeches and writing. He also interviewed and took editing advice from friends of Abzug’s like Gloria Steinem, who had dropped by rehearsal several days earlier.

In the play, Abzug, who died in 1998, recalls her career leading up to the vote count and thus offers a highlight (or lowlight) reel of mid-20th century American history: Jim Crow and McCarthyism, Kennedy and Nixon, Betty Friedan and Stonewall and beyond.

Mr. Fierstein and his director have kept the rehearsal room open to a revolving contingent of female visitors from various professions, generations and backgrounds. “We want to know what resonates with women of different ages,” said Ms. Senior, whose credits include directing the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Disgraced” and, more recently, the campus-set “The Niceties.” “And we want to know what references younger women need to Google.”

Few writers or actors have challenged gender norms in theater like Mr. Fierstein, from his breakthrough in “Torch Song Trilogy,” about the offstage life of a gay drag performer, through the books he wrote for the smash musicals “Kinky Boots” and “La Cage Aux Folles.” Most famously, he donned a spangled dress and oversized wig to play the mother and wife Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray.” The role earned him his second acting Tony Award.

But Mr. Fierstein is playing Abzug without drag, while still trying to channel her particular brand of womanhood — a combination of intelligence, moxie, Yiddish humor and a savvy understanding of how to maneuver through a sexist power structure.

It was Bella’s daughter, Liz Abzug, who suggested that Mr. Fierstein create a play about her mother.

“They share the sense of humor, the intelligence, that ability to charm people,” said Liz, the founder and executive director of the Bella Abzug Leadership Institute. (She actually hoped he would write a musical, but that’s a whole other megillah.)

This was after Donald J. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. Mr. Fierstein saw an opportunity to highlight the role of a historical woman activist and politician.

Last year, he and Liz started looking for a Bella. First, as a favor to Mr. Fierstein, Patti LuPone did a table reading. “She’s got the balls,” Liz Abzug said, joining Ms. Senior and Mr. Fierstein at the rehearsal space.

Ms. LuPone was headed to London to star in “Company,” however; trying to sign her on would prevent them from staging the play before late 2020. “I wanted to do the play now,” Mr. Fierstein said.

As he considered other actresses, he realized that Abzug already had begun to re-emerge in pop culture.

He called Bette Midler. She told him she was already playing Abzug in Julie Taymor’s film adaptation of Steinem’s memoir, “My Life on the Road.” He called Kathy Bates. She reminded him she had just played an Abzug-adjacent character in “On the Basis of Sex,” last year’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic.

There was also Kathy Najimy. But she was helping to produce the play, “Gloria: A Life,” in which Abzug was a character.

Early this year, Mr. Fierstein turned to his agent, Chris Till of CAA, and asked him to organize two readings at the agency’s offices in the Chrysler Building, and to fill the room with producers, actors and writers.

“Have you been in their conference room?” he asked as he told the story. “When you go there, let me just tell you, steal the notepads. Such nice paper.”

Anyway. In the absence of an actress, Mr. Fierstein read the play as Bella.

Calls came in after the reading, with theater producers wanting to stage it if they cast an audience-grabbing female star. A few nonprofit theater producers chimed in and said they’d do it even without a big star.

But at CAA, the audience had responded to Harvey-as-Bella. And the more Mr. Fierstein considered playing the role, the more it made sense to him.

“I’m a male writer, writing about this woman, and if I take an actress and make her say my words, in a funny way I’m doing what so many men have done to so many women over the years, turning them into our puppets,” he explained.

But he knew he needed a woman to direct him, and he felt he needed a director who wasn’t already a colleague or a friend: “If I was going to write it and act it, I had to be challenged and have someone who will ask, ‘Is this truthful? Is this real? Is this necessary?’ ”

Mr. Fierstein’s agent set him up to meet Ms. Senior for lunch at the Knickerbocker Hotel. Over diet Cokes and Caesar salads, the two talked for hours.

“It was beshert,” he said. (Yiddish: meant to be.)

If he wanted to be challenged, he got his wish in rehearsals. Just days before the play would begin previews, Ms. Senior was still prodding him to adjust the script.

Shoeless in socks, standing near hat boxes, Mr. Fierstein’s Bella was working through a shpiel: “A year before Watergate, I was calling for the impeachment of Nixon. Without a fact to stand on, I knew this was not a man to be trusted.”

In character, he continued, “It’s hell being surrounded by people so mired in their own beliefs that they cannot admit that I am always right.”

Here, the director called a timeout. “I have a couple questions and thoughts and facts,” Ms. Senior said. “Is the writer available?”

Mr. Fierstein walked behind the plywood set, grabbed his soda and came back around. Ms. Senior explained that she was concerned about Abzug saying she acted in the absence of fact.

“It’s a direct quote,” Mr. Fierstein said.

“I don’t want anything in the play that discredits her,” the director answered. “Why does she have to say, ‘Without a fact to stand on?’ I’m listening with my 2019 ears. ‘Fact’ is now a very loaded word. Can you at least put less emphasis on ‘without a fact’?”

Mr. Fierstein raised an eyebrow. “Do you want to talk to the writer or do you want to talk to the actor? You can’t have it both ways.”

He changed the line. “Without a tape or a break-in,” it now goes, “I knew that this was not a man to be trusted.”

In the play, Abzug says, “Flexibility, the willingness to let go of a position that is no longer sustainable, is NOT an attribute found in male leadership.”

Mr. Fierstein showed otherwise.

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