I've never seen a theater audience so intent on a play as the crowd at the Mark Taper Forum the other night during "In the Belly of the Beast"--and afterwards too. This is a piece that fixes you in your seat for 90 minutes and sends you home obligated to add up what you have seen. It demands a verdict.
Very well: guilty. Jack Henry Abbott (Andrew Robinson) didn't kill that after-hours waiter (Carl Franklin) by accident. Once Abbott had determined that the waiter was out to get him, he intended to kill his enemy. That Abbott tragically misread the situation doesn't take him off the hook.
That would be the legal verdict. (It was: The Taper program reminds us that Abbott was sentenced to 15 years-to-life for manslaughter.) But theater goes after wider truths than does the law. "In the Belly of the Beast"--based partly on Abbott's book and partly on court records--makes it clear that nobody in this case should be let off the hook--not Abbott, not the prison system that molded him, not the New York literary establishment that carelessly took him up.
And not the viewer, either. For the minute after you decide that Abbott can't be portrayed merely as the victim in all of this--the victim was a part-time waiter named Richard Adan and he was not the first man Abbott had killed--you hear yourself saying: "Prison is the place for him." Yet it was prison that made him.
Certainly Abbott had a mind of his own--actor Robinson conveys the coiled force of it. But his mind, his will and his reflexes were shaped by 19 years of living in another country, a taste of whose customs we are given at the Taper.
For instance, there is a moment when the audience is thrown totally into the dark, as prisoners in solitary confinement once were. For an instant, the sensation is rather pleasant: a velvety surround of pure black nothingness. Then a twinge of disorientation is felt, as if one were beginning to lose his bearings. The lights do not come on too soon.
In another scene, Robinson shows us the rack where a prisoner might be strung up for a few hours like a living hammock, in order to contemplate his sins. What this really does is to drive the convict a little crazier, a little farther into himself. It also hardens him, and Abbott-Robinson keeps reminding us how necessary it is to be hard in prison, lest you become someone's scapegoat and eventually his catamite.
"You can't have someone with ill feelings towards you walking around," the actor tells us, not being ironical at all. "Ill feelings" on the part of others have to be vanquished, or there will be an attack on you. Therefore, you attack first, slipping under the other man's guard. We are given an extremely lucid, almost lyrical, description of how this preemptive strike is accomplished, and we realize that it was written years before Abbott followed the waiter outside to the dumpster.
To live in the midst of enemies breeds responses not easily put aside in "the free world," one of Abbott's favorite phrases. Yet when his defense attorney (Andy Wood) makes this very case for him, something in actor Robinson's eyes tells us that Abbott himself doesn't buy it, though he hopes it will sell.
He has demanded responsibility. Very well. Although he is appalled to discover how distorted his vision of the ordinary world is to take a well-meaning waiter as a hostile force--he will take responsibility. He will even do so proudly. And when they read him back the passage about the knife sinking into the other man's chest like hot butter, Abbott-Robinson doesn't hang his head. It's well written. They've got to admit it.
That was probably the moment when the real Abbott blew his case. In the theater it makes us know that we are listening to an actual person, not to a character in a play. Unlike TV docudrama, this piece doesn't suppress half of what it knows so as to make things easier for the audience. It confronts Abbott as he is, and a simple "yes" or "no" won't do to sum him up. There he stands, a crank, a killer, a scapegoat, a good writer. Our bane and our brother. What do we do with him--chop off his head?
This is hot, tricky material. Director Robert Woodruff contains it in a cool, hard-edged production that never begs for our emotional complicity: it's complicated enough to simply get out the facts. (Woodruff also did the adaptation, based on a previous one by Adrian Hall.)
As opposed to Woodruff's staging last year at Taper, Too, this one has more space to work in. It may suffer slightly from this: I missed the claustrophobia of the smaller theater. Yet modern penitentiaries are, in fact, big places with TVs monitoring everybody's moves, as seen in John Ivo Gilles' expanded setting, which can take on a Kafka-esque look under Paulie Jenkins' lights.