PROTECTION IS NOT just the name of the game in prison. It is the game, period. Who will kill for you, who won't squeal to the guards on you, who will connect you to the "lines" that fetch in cash and drugs from the outside. Nothing else much matters. All the other undercurrents of prison life feed into this network of domination--the meals, the exchanges with guards, the vocational training programs. Every activity provides a chance to jockey for influence. Every bit of slang becomes a code-word. Every move somehow reflects on the prison hierarchy.
And each inmate is branded according to his place on this ladder. Either you're a "politician," which means you've got an in with the warden's office, or you have a "rep," which means people respect you because you wouldn't blink at busting a guy's head open. Or else you're a stoolie. And that means you better be getting a lot of protection from the wardens and the "screws," because with just a moment's diversion an enemy could split your skull and spill your brains with the edge of a metal toilet seat.
On the surface--in its jokes and the general tone of its dialogue--John Herbert's Fortune and Men's Eyes revolves around homosexuality in prison life. But the play is really about the exigencies of power relations inside "the joint." Homosexuality, in Herbert's imaginary cellblock, just happens to represent the medium of influence. So when Queenie, one of the cellmates, throws his head back effeminately and announces, "The General (meaning the warden) has had me all over his carpet," he means more than the physical act--he is also implying that he pulls political strings. And when Smitty, a new inmate, arrives, Rocky's way of intimidating him as a political protege is to force him to surrender in the shower.
The play's first act goes on to lay out the rules of the game, and to drive home this lesson: when you're a greenhorn like Smitty, you either let others push you around or you learn fast how to push them around. Queenie, a very funny, cynical character played with perfect wise-ass sureness by Steven Johnson, gives Smitty a crash course in this special language of protection: "Queenie's your mother," Johnson tells him, "and everybody needs a mother." Later Queenie leaves on a visit to the General's office, and Smitty is cornered by Rocky, whom John Alden plays with a slightly forced cockiness. Rocky lays out two alternatives to the rookie: either Smitty lets him become his "old man" (sexually and politically), or else he tries to go the independent route, like Mona.
BUT IF HE DOES, he risks the chance that someday when no one is around to shield him, the screws will drag him into a closet and "gang-splash" him, like they did Mona. So Smitty submits. But not for long, as Queenie convinces him that he could become a "politician" and a "hippo," too. The next time Rocky calls him to the shower, Smitty acquaints his patron with the floor of the crapper--and now he's the "old man" in the block.
Such a frank and brutal story of prison life would present a tough challenge to any director, let alone an undergraduate one. But Dan Riviera has an intelligent and mature grasp of the delicate tension here between comedy and dead, dead seriousness. So while some problems with execution do come up, he never lets the production seem amateurish.
The depth of the director's and the actors' understanding becomes particularly impressive in the second act, as the prisoners begin to disclose their private feelings about prison life. Queenie lets it slip that he once tried to go straight, but that society wouldn't have him back--and this explains why he so jestingly accepts his life shuttling between street-hustle and prison stints. Rocky reveals that his parents are dope-pushers and bootleggers, but says he's not asking for sympathy. And in the play's most poignant monologue, Mona pathetically tells the story of how the street gang assaulted him, not the other way around. But the police chose to see it the gang's way, and Mona has learned to expect the same raw deal from prison.
Harold Rappoport, as Mona, has the most subtle, trickiest emotional transition of the play to make. And he carries it off convincingly. In the first act he comes across as nothing but a gutless nebbish, passively accepting any manner of verbal humiliation. But in the second act he shows that he has remained vulnerable by his own choice, because there's a degree of sensitivity that he refuses to lose to the prisoners' tough conformity. When he finally refuses to let Smitty become his "old man," declaring with the Shakespeare sonnet that he cares too much for Smitty to play by the groundrules of sexual domination, he displays a lot more guts than Rocky and Queenie. These two immediately submit to Smitty once he slaps them around the crapper a few times.
Smitty's evolution into the lord (or lady) of the cell does not work as well. But the blame does not go to George Elliot, whose only problem is a bit of stiffness and hesitancy in his delivery. The offender is the script, which tries to squeeze two quantum leaps in Smitty's development into two short acts. Initially, Elliot plays Smitty as a naive, slow-witted, very unhip rookie whose first revelation to the cell is that he plans to learn advanced auto mechanics while behind bars. Then suddenly Smitty becomes a sensitive, loyal friend to Mona. And finally he turns, despite himself, into a hardened bastard concerned only with salvaging his own hide. Prisoners do have to learn the ropes fast, but Herbert's script and Elliot's interpretation turn the tables much too fast.
All of the other minor acting flukes, however--ones that might represent drawbacks in another play--here add to the characters' concreteness. While the play's fifth character, a guard played by Paul Jackel, for instance, seems awkward when he tries to enter into insulting repartee with the prisoners, this is exactly how guards sound. They try to act tough, but can never quite match the prisoners' cool--a logical enough phenomenon, since guards are often men with the same frustrated and violent temperament as prisoners, but without the nerve to try to make society pay for their disappointment. John Alden's Rocky is also a bit uneasy and self-conscious. But this works, too, because the sort of character Rocky sums up should seem ill at ease. By background, he is a child of the streets. But deep down he possesses a far broader understanding of the world and bigger dreams than the others. (He is the only inmate in the cell with a stack of newspapers under his bunk.)
A production this strong, of course adds to the play's depressing impact, for a subject this unsettling at times begs for a technical slip-up to relieve the tension. Here the gay jokes supply the only possible relief: you can either laugh at them or scoff at them, deciding that they undermine the play's deeper solemnity. But Herbert still means above all to lay bare the barbarous code that prisoners live under--and what it means for men of sensibility to succumb, or not to succumb, to that code. And if you let it, this production brings home that statement with poignancy.