The American Theater Exchange is concluding its inaugural season at the Joyce Theater with a grim sociodrama drawn from personal history and recent events. Adapted by Adrian Hall and further adapted by director Robert Woodruff, ``In the Belly of the Beast'' is based on the published letters of Jack Henry Abbott, written from prison to Norman Mailer, and on the transcript of Abbott's subsequent murder trial. The murder occurred while Abbott was at a Manhattan halfway house, awaiting the full parole which Mailer and others had helped obtain for him.
``In the Belly of the Beast'' is essentially subjective and, in that sense, self-serving. The objectivity -- the element that distances the spectator while yet involving him -- lies in the method chosen by Messrs. Hall and Woodruff to present the extracts that comprise their dramatization. To their credit, the adaptors have devised a valid theater work with sobering implications.
The physical production is stark: a minimum of institutional-type aluminum furniture, a suspended microphone, two ranks of TV monitors to record what happens on the stage and occasionally to provide editorial captions. A mobile set piece serves various purposes, including the solitary-confinement cells in which some of the most harrowing incidents of the account take place.
Yet the emphasis is on the psychological consequences of prolonged and recurrently brutal incarceration, rather than on merely physical circumstances. In this connection, a program note by Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Los Angeles Mark Taper Forum (where the production originated), illuminates the approach to and the rationale for the dramatic interpretation. Citing ``the inescapable truth of the experience,'' Mr. Davidson writes:
``The play's title is apt: `In the Belly of the Beast.' Not about but in. `Belly' takes us inside the grim world of the maximum security prison. We can almost touch the reality, almost feel it. We are there with Jack Henry Abbott, yet we are also witnesses to him. And though the horror of internment is made known, felt, it is the interplay of light and sound and movement that holds us captive .''
In his remarkable performance as Abbott, Andrew Robinson begins his reminiscing in a manner that is tight-lipped, withdrawn, almost offhand. He tells of having once escaped and of the nightmare he experienced while briefly fugitive, sleeping in a comfortable bed in a pleasant Montreal Hotel. Mr. Robinson proves an eloquent and committed interpreter of Jack Abbott's ordeal. At the time the letters were written, the 37-year-old convict had spent 25 years behind bars, including 14 or 15 years in solitary c onfinement.
According to Abbott, ``in reform school, he [the inmate] is punished for being a little boy. In prison, he is punished for trying to be a man. . . . At age thirty-seven I am barely a precocious child. My passions are those of a boy. This . . . is the hidden, dark side of state-raised convicts.''
Assisting in the stage reconstruction of a prison life and a murder trial are Andy Wood and William Allen Young. They portray, respectively, the defense lawyer and prosecutor at Abbott's 1982 murder trial, at which he was found guilty of first-degree manslaughter. In addition, Wood and Young each play a number of incidental roles, from prison guards to Richard Adan, the young actor-waiter whom Abbott killed.
Running for about 90 minutes, ``In the Belly of the Beast'' is performed without intermission, which heightens tension and gives the spectator no respite from the ordeal and its impact. At one point, the theater is completely blacked out for 90 seconds in an effort to suggest the torment of solitary confinement in a totally darkened cell. It is one of the most effective devices of a production in which the designs of John Ivo Gilles (set), Pauline Jenkins (lighting), and Carol Brolaski (costumes) play a n essential part.
``In the Belly of the Beast'' abounds in ironies with tragic consequences. Abbott's demonstrated literary brilliance -- acquired through self-instruction, practice, and voracious reading -- led ultimately to the parole effort that would have meant his freedom. But the fierce hostility (he calls it paranoia) acquired in prison flared in the fatal incident that ended his freedom. The prizewinning production is scheduled to run through Aug. 31 at the Joyce.