A compelling moment in the theater, whose visceral impact sends you reeling in your seat (if that’s physically possible) and has the capacity of staying with you forever – that’s what I experienced last night at a production of David Mamet’s 1975 classic, “American Buffalo.”
It wasn’t the play itself that left such a dizzying impression, but rather a single moment occurring about five minutes from the end, when a character named “Teach” races up from behind and whams a character named “Bob” in the head with a baseball bat.
David Mamet is known for being a kind of a trickster, so maybe the bat that “Teach” smacked “Bob” with wasn’t real. But to dissuade the audience of this reassurance, Mamet (or the director), subsequent to the bashing, has “Teach”, banging the end of the bat on the floor, validating its wood-solid credentials.
It is entirely possible there was an intervening “switcheroo”, wherein “Teach” surreptitiously exchanges a “soft” bat (used in the head bashing) for the genuine article (which was banged on the floor), but I didn’t catch it happening. Though I was admittedly seated in “Row P.”
Sitting in “Row P”, however, I could still easily discern the stomach-turning resonation of bat against skull. This led me to wondering about the actor on the receiving end of the, literal, battering.
It is entirely possible that the actor playing “Bob” does not feel this way. But if I were him…
I most definitely would.
THE ACTOR PLAYING “BOB” (If It Were Me): It was a genuine honor being cast in the role. I mean, a David Mamet play, are you kidding me? It was a genuine honor being cast in the role. Did I say that already? Sorry. That’s what happens when you’re hit in the head with a baseball bat eight times a week. It kind of jumbles your brains.
It is a real bat? I will tell you this: Every night, my ears are ringing. Frankly, I don’t know how I can stand there. I hear these rapid footsteps, I know it’s coming, and then, Slamma-ramma ding dong! Which is what I hear, when I’m lying on the floor.
You know how stunt men learn to fall so they don’t injure themselves? I thought maybe there was some kind of secret way to get hit in the head with a baseball bat where it wouldn’t be so bad. I even went to see this big name karate teacher; I figured maybe he could teach me some techniques. He said he only knew one. “Man swing baseball bat at head, move head out of the way.” That wasn’t going to help me. The play says I get hit.
I have to be honest here. I do not…don’t…do not…sorry, what was I saying? Bear with me; it clears in a couple of seconds… okay, I’m fine. I was saying, I do not get nailed equally hard in every performance. The actor playing “Teach”, he’s been trained to hold back – like a checked swing in baseball – make it look good, but, at the last second, ease up.
But, you know, we’re actors. So, sometimes “Teach” gets caught up in the moment, and he really lets me have it. But it’s not every night. Which, in a way, makes it worse. You never know when the “big one” is coming.
Of course, I know it’s not really me “Teach” is nailing on the noggin, it’s my character, “Bob.” The problem is, it’s my noggin.
The play runs about two hour, including intermission. When I’m onstage, I’m concentrating on the action – picking up my cues, delivering my lines, making the moves – I sit down, I get up, I go out, I come back – whatever it says. The thing is, though, the whole time I’m out there, as hard as I’m trying to focus, in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, “Five minutes from the end of this play, I am going to get hit in the head.”
And it’s not just during the play; the whole day it’s like that. I wake up in the morning, “Twelve hours till they hit me in the head.” I shower after breakfast: “Eleven hours till they hit me in the head.” It’s hard to live like that, you know? We take the kids to the park, and I’m totally distracted. My wife says, “Even when you’re here, you’re not here.” What am I supposed to tell her? “Seven hours till they hit me in the head?”
I went through this before once, when I was making a movie. I don’t eat eggs, you know? The texture, the runny stuff, the word “albumen” – I can’t handle it. In the movie, I meet this woman, and we go back to her place. Next morning, I walk into the kitchen, she says, “How do like your eggs?”
I mean, I had read the script. I knew it was coming. I could have said to the director, “Can we change it to ‘How do you like your pancakes’?” But, you know. You don’t want it getting around that you’re ‘difficult.’
Of course, there’s a difference between forcing down some runny scrambled eggs – for eleven “takes” – and getting slammed in the head with a baseball bat. Eggs don’t show up on your CAT scans.
One really…unforgivable moment. I’m walking down the street, and I hear these footsteps, racing up behind me. My mind saps, you know? It feels like the play. Seething with pent-up emotion, I wheel around, and my hand’s suddenly a fist, and I knock the guy to the ground. Turns out, it was an old man running for a bus. I felt terrible! I offered him tickets to the show.
But mostly, it’s okay. The reviews were great. We’re getting packed houses. And we’re already half way through the run. Forty-eight performances – that means I only have to get hit in the head twenty-four more times. Twice each on the matinee days – Saturdays and Sundays. I think I can get through it. Unless, God forbid, we're held over.
Did I ever think of quitting? Heck, no, I’m an actor. Though I have taken twenty-four shots to the coconut. So I may not be entirely in my right mind.