When Matthew August Jeffers was practicing the Torah portion of his bar mitzvah, his tutor would tell him he sounded good — but not Broadway good. For that, he’d have to practice a little harder, hit the notes with more gusto, hold them with more precision.

Twenty years later, the Pikesville native, who has a rare form of dwarfism, is starring in one of Broadway’s hottest shows of the season, “An Enemy of the People.”

The revival of Henrik Ibsen’s play is routinely selling out and has been nominated for five Tony awards, including one for Jeremy Strong, who plays the lead. Jeffers, 33, has a big role as a journalist named Billing and for much of the play shares the stage with Strong, who played Kendall Roy on “Succession,” and Michael Imperioli, who played Christopher Moltisanti on “The Sopranos.”

“My tutor was using Broadway as the end game to get me where I needed to be,” Jeffers said during a stage-side interview in New York. “And now, here we are, talking on Broadway. So yes, it’s very special. I always wanted to be here.”

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Matthew August Jeffers with the cast of his hit play, "An Enemy of the People." For his Broadway debut, he shares the stage with actors Michael Imperioli and Jeremy Strong. (Carrington Spires)

“An Enemy of the People” opened in March at the Circle in the Square Theatre and ends its run later this month. There are no bad — or cheap — seats and no real intermission (save for about 10 minutes, when the set changes and the actors serve audience members Nordic whiskey until it runs out).

Ibsen’s 1882 play centers on a Norwegian town that has just opened some spa-like baths and is poised to turn into a tourist destination.

Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Strong) has discovered that the water feeding the baths is contaminated with bacteria from his father-in-law’s tannery. Stockmann assumes that when he shares his findings, the mayor and the newspaper and the property owners will want to fix the problem. Instead, the mayor — who also happens to be Stockmann’s brother — leads the citizenry in a revolt against the doctor.

Imperioli plays the mayor with impeccable smarminess; Strong is so steadfastly earnest that he barely flinches when the townspeople pelt him with ice night after night. Jeffers’ role is more nuanced: As the always dandy and occasionally lascivious reporter Billing, he must first convince the audience that he is a principled investigative reporter, and then pivot to show that he would cast aside his principles when the truth hurts business.

“He threads the needle,” Imperioli said of Jeffers. “He plays a character that could go either way. A slippery opportunist. He’s a wonderful guy, and he’s just wonderful in the role.”

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Jeffers has been busy lately. He starred in the 2022 sci-fi indie movie “Unidentified Objects,” a buddy comedy about a grouchy gay dwarf and a free-spirited sex worker who take a road trip to an alien abduction site. He also recently played chief resident Dr. Mark Walsh on the NBC show “New Amsterdam.” And he has enjoyed smaller roles in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and “The Walking Dead.”

Matthew August Jeffers, a Pikesville native, commutes to Broadway on a custom-made Woom bike. Behind him is New York City Police Officer Adam Mantovani, known as the “theat-ah cop.” He and Jeffers fist-bump every night. (Lila Walker)

A childhood of surgeries

This is what Jeffers has worked toward since he was a student at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School and then Towson University, where he majored in theatre.

But even just being alive was once uncertain for Jeffers, an only child born with a rare form of dwarfism.

Doctors performed a tracheotomy on him when he was just 5 months old. Another 19 surgeries would follow, many focusing on his legs, which were growing into each other. When he was 9, after spending the summer recuperating, Jeffers addressed his class in a bed-like wheelchair. He asked the students not to pick him up, or pat him on the head, or stare at him.

“I am just like the rest of the kids in my class in every other way except I am not as tall,” he said in a speech that his rabbi, Mitchell Wohlberg, has saved for 20 years. “I like to be treated like every other kid. I like to do the same kinds of things as other kids. I like basketball, soccer, baseball, music, playing video games and lots of other things just like my friends. This is the way Hashem made me and I am thankful for so many things.”

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From that moment on, according to Zipora Schorr, the longtime head of school, no one bothered Jeffers.

“I’ve had a very hard life, but from my community I’ve had green lights all along the way,” Jeffers said. “All the people I looked up to, they all affirmed and supported what I wanted to do, because they knew outside of that sphere, the world was telling me different messages. And I think they felt it was their responsibility to counterbalance that.”

Jeffers fell in love with acting when he played Schroeder in the eighth grade play, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” His mother encouraged him to audition. All his life, people had stared at him as an oddity. Now, he was commanding attention because of his abilities.

Matthew August Jeffers with his mother, Marcie, in eighth grade, wearing his Schoeder costume from "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown." The part ignited his love of theater. His mother, who encouraged him, died of a brain tumor in 2013. (Matthew August Jeffers)

“Every once in a while, there are people who come along, and I tell them, ‘You probably could have a career in this,’ ” said Beth Tfiloh theatre director Diane Smith, who cast him in that play and many others. “I could tell, even in middle school, that he had a lot of talent.”

Schorr agrees: “He found his place here first, on our stage. He walked onstage, and he owned it. No matter what part he was in, he owned it. He was going to conquer the world.”

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Never play an Oompa Loompa

When he decided to become an actor, Jeffers modeled his path after his idol and the topic of his senior thesis, Peter Dinklage. He wasn’t going to play a gremlin, a Santa’s elf or an Oompa Loompa. He would never hide his stature — he’s 4-foot-2 and 80 pounds — but he would also refuse roles that he felt would denigrate himself. It has worked for Dinklage, who has been critically acclaimed in parts like Tyrion Lannister on “Game of Thrones.”

Like Dinklage, Jeffers approaches acting as an uncompromising person of short stature. That’s not to say he won’t play a dwarf. Most of Dinklage’s roles, Jeffers notes, also have a nod to his size. In “Unidentified Objects,” Jeffers plays a gay dwarf. Jeffers is straight, but the agony in his performance otherwise feels drawn from life.

The theater world has moved to embrace race-, size- and gender-agnostic casting in leading roles. At Towson University, Jeffers won the lead role of Tom in “The Glass Menagerie,” Tennessee Williams’ most autobiographical play, about a poet who works in a shoe store.

“If he’s onstage, he’s so fully in the moment that it becomes hard to take your eyes off of him,” said David White, one of Jeffers’ Towson professors, who still consults with him on auditions. “Even when he was at Towson, he was never making college theatre. He was always making theatre at this level.”

Another Towson professor, Robyn Quick, recalled Jeffers’ determination to secure a prestigious acting scholarship. That led to Jeffers performing at the Kennedy Center.

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“He makes very specific choices, grounded in careful character study, and commits to them fully,” she said.

Matthew August Jeffers, a Pikesville native, shows off some of his Baltimore memorabilia in his dressing room. He is a huge Ravens and Orioles fan.
Matthew August Jeffers, a Pikesville native, shows off some of his Baltimore memorabilia in his dressing room. He is a huge Ravens and Orioles fan. (Lila Walker)

In 2012, Jeffers, a Ravens fan, wrote to Coach John Harbaugh to motivate the team, which had been in a slump. Harbaugh was so moved by Jeffers’ letter that he shared it with the team, and ESPN broadcast a story with Jeffers reciting the letter on stage. “A positive attitude,” Jeffers said in the letter, “is the most powerful combatant to life’s misfortunes.”

The Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2013, and Jeffers became a motivational speaker, while grieving his mother who had died of a brain tumor.

Shortly after, he moved to New York City and got involved in the New York Theatre Workshop, and eventually met Taylor Williams, casting director for “An Enemy of the People.” He became confident enough in his future in acting to recently drop his day job as a psychoanalyst’s assistant.

Baltimore memorabilia on Broadway

Jeffers commutes nine miles from his home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge to the Theater District on a custom-outfitted red Woom children’s bicycle.

His dressing room is decked out with Orioles and Ravens memorabilia. A vegan, he typically eats a veggie burger before the show. He likes to say that Broadway is a muscle and he has to keep it toned.

Jeffers slips on a green “Kindness is Universal” shirt after each show to sign autographs. He concludes each night fist-bumping with New York City Police Officer Adam Mantovani, known as the “theat-ah cop.”

“He’s a crowd favorite,” Mantovani said. “Everyone cheers when he comes out.”

Jeffers has ideas for TV shows about Baltimore. His playbill blurb notes he is a “proud Baltimore native.” For those who knew him growing up, the feeling is mutual.

“He has a small body, and so what? It hasn’t changed the way he sees himself, and how others see him,” Schorr said. “He is a star, and he always has been a star, and now the world is catching up.”