Jack Henry Abbott liked to style himself a state-raised convict. Placed in foster homes almost from the moment of his birth, he soon graduated to juvenile hall, and finally adult jail. Between the ages of 12 and 37, he spent all but nine months imprisoned. Following a celebrated correspondence with Norman Mailer, published as In the Belly of the Beast, Abbott obtained parole in 1981. Six weeks later he killed a Greenwich Village waiter and remained jailed until his suicide by hanging in 2002.
Playwright Adrian Hall’s revamp of his 1985 adaptation now includes the scene of Abbott’s death as well as liberal passages of Abbott’s published writing, court records, and newspaper articles. While David Mogentale scowls and expounds as Abbott, a trio of actors eddy about him as guards, prosecutors, prison reformers, and boho groupies. These interpolations don’t contribute much to our understanding of Abbott—mostly they tend toward the “Hello, I’m Norman Mailer and here is what I wrote” school of historical re-enactment. Nor does Leo Farley’s direction heighten the effect, though there are some attempts to re-create prison conditions, via sudden blackouts and shrieks.
Rather, it’s the force of Abbott’s language—a violent analytics barely restrained by syntax—and the commitment of Mogentale’s performance that lend the play its power. With a receding hairline, droopy moustache, and glasses, Mogentale isn’t an obvious candidate for menace—though he’d make a great DMV examiner—but his command of the material soon terrifies. If only Hall had had the sense to do what scores of brutal prison officials did—keep Abbott in solitary.