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A CurtainUp Review
Adam Baum and the Jew Movie
By Elyse Sommer
Adam Baum and the Jew Movie -- it's such a bold "in your face" title that you expect something gutsy and provocative, especially with Ron Leibman and Christopher Welch co-starring. However, neither Leibman or Welch are able to wrest much drama or humor from Daniel Goldfarb's intriguingly titled but very thin slice of Hollywood history (it's based on an actual encounter between Sam Goldwyn and Ring Lardner Jr.). And while young Adam Lamberg, the play's title character, gets the last lines (from his Haf Torah chant) he too is forced to go through bits of business like learning to shake hands with a knife-like clasp.
Leibman, known for his emotionally over-the-top but moving Jewish character interpretations (Roy Cohn in Angels in America, Shylock in Merchant of Venice and an exorcist-rabbi in A Dybbuk) can't be accused of not investing this latest character with the same intensity. On the contrary, he literally drips with feelings. Given the stage business and dialogue assigned to him by Mr. Goldfarb there are, in fact, moments when you think he's going to either choke on one of the plums he bites into and spits out if they're not hard enough or that he'll chew up the tiny stage of the McGinn-Cazale theater. While the Goldwynesque movie mogul Leibman portrays here is the play's be-all and end-all, the character as written fails to rise above what amounts to repetitive shtick. Neither does what happens between the tone setting Twentieth Century Fox anthem and Adam's final "Baruch atoh adonoi, no'sayn ha'toroh" accompanied by his father's sobs.
The fragile plot spins out over two meetings between Samuel Baum and the non-Jewish Oscar winning writer he's hired to pen a film about anti-semitism in America. Baum is determined to rush his "Jew movie" to the screen since his rival Darryl Zanuck has a movie on the same theme in the works, an adaptation of Laura Hobson's novel Gentleman's Agreement. As Samuel sees it, there's only room for one "Jew movie" a year. What's more, it should be written by a Gentile (unlike Zanuck's writer, Moss Hart) who will depict Jews through his 100% American eyes.
The comedy that's supposed to leaven Goldfarb's serious concerns (Jews who hide their Jewishness in the interest of assimilation and Gentiles who harbor anti-semitic feelings even when they proclaim their liberalism) resides in the script by the WASPY Garfield (Gar) Hampson, Jr. (Christopher Even Welch). It's full of carefully researched (and mispronounced) Yiddishisms and the outrages of World War II. Not at all what Baum envisions. And so their first meeting is devoted to Baum's softening up Gar for a major rewrite by plying him with refreshments.
As Gar's hostility to all this stereotypical Jewish behavior will surface later, so Baum's efforts to please and cajole are from the outset riddled with aggressive mistrust. He sends his secretary for Scotch (knowing how Gentiles like booze) and when Gar finally accepts some cashews gloatingly comments that he's picked the most expensive snack proffered. Welch whose career I've followed with great admiration (most recently and outstandingly in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at Williamstown) is amusingly uncomfortable; but, like Leibman, he's trapped in a situation comedy that is consistently short on laughs and big on cliches.
The second act, which moves the confrontation to Baum's study as his son's bar mitzvah party draws to a close, isn't much better. When Gar's hidden anti-semitism finally explodes it is once again fully anticipated. You knew it would happen. . . as you knew that Zanuck's Jewish movie turns out to be a better idea than Baum's, as you knew that Adam will finally get Dad to listen to him reprise his Haf Torah.
Director Brian Kulick has done little to tone down Leibman's playing this part as if he were in the Gershwin Theater or to take advantage of Welch's comic gifts. Walt Spangler's set is appropriately upwardly mobile 1940s Hollywood and costume designer Elizabeth Hope Clancy might just bring back plaid suits for future bar mitzvah boys.