In 1995, former President George H.W. Bush and Bella Abzug both traveled to China. ‘’I feel somewhat sorry for the Chinese, having Bella Abzug running around,” he whined at a meeting with food production executives. “Bella Abzug is one who has always represented the extremes of the women’s movement.’’
Upon hearing of Bush’s remark, Abzug—a former congresswoman who had represented Manhattan’s West Side in the 1970s and was the first Jewish woman elected to the House of Representatives—retaliated with characteristic panache. “He was addressing a fertilizer group?” she asked. “That’s appropriate.’’
Bush was one of many politicians who earned Abzug’s ire. She may have apologized for the time she allegedly punched a campaign worker, but she wasn’t known for backing down, as President Richard Nixon learned when she told him during a White House reception that her constituents demanded a withdrawal from Vietnam.
The spirit of “Battling Bella” survives in Triangle’s production of Bella Bella, directed by Donald Horn. It’s a play that would have benefited from a broader scope—the sweeping saga of Abzug’s work as a feminist and anti-war activist cries out for a colossal narrative canvas—but it’s a solid primer for Abzug newbies and a splendid showcase for its fearsome star, Wendy Westerwelle.
Written by Harvey Fierstein, Bella Bella takes place in September 1976 in a bathroom at the Summit Hotel in Manhattan, where Abzug is stewing while she waits to see if she will triumph in a Senate primary. In an effort to kill time, she addresses the audience directly, reliving her political crusades and bemoaning the corrosive power of the patriarchy.
It’s hard to imagine a better Bella than Westerwelle. She doesn’t just have charisma—she has swagger, especially when Bella mentions that she knows Gloria Steinem, Lily Tomlin and Shirley MacLaine. “Am I name dropping?” she asks. While other actors would have slathered that line with self-deprecation, Westerwelle says it slyly, suggesting that Bella doesn’t care if we think she’s name dropping. She’s cool and she knows it.
While Westerwelle radiates confidence, she also captures Bella’s conflicted feelings about the tortured relationship between men, women and American politics. Bella declares that three female presidents wouldn’t have allowed America to become mired in Vietnam, but she also grudgingly admits, “Oh, you can’t blame it all on men. Sexism is systemic.”
Bella Bella is essentially a tale of two Bellas—the one who dreams of a utopian matriarchy and the one who witnessed women throwing rocks at Black children trying to integrate a school. The friction between Bella’s idealism and her realism is the most intriguing part of the play, given that her many rivals—including Pat Nixon, who Bella says patronizingly complimented her taste in hats—remain offstage.
Bella’s mention of Pat Nixon makes you wonder why Bella Bella had to be a one-woman show. A play about Abzug and that particular first lady arguing over beers could have been compelling, not least of all because it would have let Fierstein show Bella fighting instead of telling us that she’s a fighter.
It’s possible that Fierstein, who starred as Bella when Bella Bella premiered in 2019, had too much affection for his heroine to pit her against a formidable rival. You can’t blame him for wanting to celebrate Abzug, but his resistance to identifying a single character flaw drains much of the potential drama out of the play.
Abzug’s achievements are admirable, but there’s nothing interesting about unrelenting hero worship. Fierstein might have considered it sacrilegious to bring up a 1972 report by Ralph Nader that estimated Abzug’s sponsorship of a measure often cost it 20 to 30 votes, but that’s the kind of detail that can separate a work of art from an act of faith.
Looked at in the arc of American history, Bella Bella is a profoundly tragic play. Abzug died in 1998—and if she’s looking down on America from the afterlife, she’s likely seething at the continued threat that the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority poses to her legacy as an advocate for abortion rights.
Yet Bella Bella makes it abundantly clear that Abzug was not to be discouraged. She may have lost her fair share of fights, but today’s progressives would do well to adopt the creed of resilience she lays out in the play: “You know, it’s amazing the things you can get people to do just by telling them to do it.”
SEE IT: Bella Bella plays at Triangle Productions! The Sanctuary at Sandy Plaza, 1785 NE Sandy Blvd., 503-239-5919, trianglepro.org. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday and 2 pm Sunday, through Dec. 11. $15-$35.