If you’re like me, you find it easy to justify an eighty-mile trip to see a hot actor – one never seen on Washington stages – play a classic role in a great play. So for that reason, I hied myself hence to Fredrick yesterday in order to see Jeff Keilholtz take on the role of Teach in David Mamet’s American Buffalo at Maryland Ensemble Theatre.
It was everything I expected it to be…and much, much more.
American Buffalo is a tale told about idiots, full of sound and fury. Donny (Tad James) is a professional loser of the old school, who runs a dilapidated junk shop (nicely replicated by Ira Domser) and mentors Bobby (Clayton Myers), a young man who lives in a perpetual fog. The two of them are trying to develop a breaking-and-entering scheme against a man they believe to be a coin collector. Teach, a human Roman candle, bursts into the store during their plotting, and thereafter talks himself into their plans. It all goes downhill after that.
Doom hangs over their every inspiration, and every decision they make is wonderfully audacious in its stupidity. This is a comedy, notwithstanding that two men end up in the hospital and another bleeds from his face at the end. Their mode of discourse is solipsism and unaccountable rage. “What is he doing here?” Teach says, astonished to see Bobby at a late-night rendezvous he had arranged with Donny.”I came in,” Bobby replies guilelessly, as if that explains everything, or anything. In another scene, Teach is fulminating in anger over some slight at a diner. “The only way to teach these people is to kill them,” he concludes.
The text allows a wide variety of approaches to Teach. In one of the play’s Broadway incarnations, Robert Duvall played him with nuclear fury, and the character took over the stage. Keilholtz and director Peter Wray take exactly the opposite approach.
This Teach is comic, almost sweet; at one point, Donnie asks him how he proposes to break in, he responds “I am not here to smother you in theory” in such a lordly tone that we believe that he believes it.
He cackles, he giggles and snorts, he does mocking voices when he wants to show Donny the ridiculousness of some statement or contention. He is in perpetual motion – his enormous eyes a roulette wheel of emotion. Keilholtz acts with his whole body here; when Teach hears something he wants to pounce on, you can see him push his face, below the lower lip, out with his tongue, and he gives his character half a dozen other tics, none of which seem mannered or actorly. It is a wonderfully layered and complete performance, one of the best I’ve seen this season, and it is, moreover, a choice which allows the other actors to burnish their characters.
“Teach is…a schlub. His anger comes from several things. One is from his despair, being really down on his uppers,” Mike Nussbaum, who played Teach in its first staging in Chicago, told me in this interview. He played Teach like a “mad poet.” “He’s not a successful hard man,” Nussbaum said. “He’s not that. He’s pretending.”
Keilholtz and Wray get it, and the play is stronger for it. James’ Donny becomes the dominant force; his own irrational rage – he is motivated to perform the theft because, without reason, he believes his intended victim snookered him by purchasing a buffalo nickel from him for $90 – becomes a co-engine with Teach’s to move the story along. In many productions I’ve seen, Teach seems to cow Donny; but in this one, the two characters feed off each others’ fury and stupidity, so that the first moment of silence – when Teach goes to the window to look at a police car cruising nearby – makes us feel as though we are in a roller coaster, at the moment of free-fall.
The third leg of this three-legged horse – Clayton Myers’ Bobby – is also the product of brilliant choices, flawlessly executed. The text hints that Bobby has been dealing with a drug problem, and in most productions I’ve seen, Bobby is neither sober nor clean. But this production pays scant attention to Bobby’s romance with narcotics to play up what he really is: a good-hearted, thick-skulled child, whose dominant characteristic is his love for Donnie.
Mamet’s characters are like Falstaff’s minions in the Henry plays: their lives are parodies of larger lives, whose form they know, but not its substance. Donnie and Teach pretend that they are conducting business in the way the great Captains of Industry conduct business, but in reality they can’t even plan a simple b&e, and they never end up leaving the shop until it’s time to go to the hospital. Most productions play this for horse laughs, but this well-conceived production plays for keeps. Teach, Bobby, and Donny are venal and stupid, but this production makes us understand that they are people, too, and that they have a little bit of each of us in them.
I had expected to go to Fredrick and report on the work of a fine actor – one we don’t see in productions closer to Washington. Instead, I herewith report that there are three superb actors and one superb director putting on a superb production, far to the northwest, in Fredrick, Maryland.
By David Mamet
Directed by Peter Wray
Produced by Maryland Ensemble Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes, with one intermission