by Daniel Goldfarb
Directed by Alisa Palmer
Starring Richard Greenblatt and Rick Roberts
at CanStage/Berkeley Street until May 4
26 Berkeley Street/416-368-3110 or

Reviewed by Joel Greenberg

A press note informs us that, "Adam Baum and the Jew Movie is based on an actual conversation between Ring Lardner Jr. and Hollywood studio mogul Samuel Goldwyn and reimagined by Daniel Goldfarb." If this is tantamount to invoking the much abused but ever so popular film slogan, "Based on a true story," I will let it pass. Goldfarb, for all his reimagining, has succeeded only in cobbling a cardboard cutout of a story with dialogue to match. To his credit, the playwright threatens a debate about assimilation and acculturation, but the moment passes without so much as an 'Oy, gevalt!"

The year is 1946 and studio head Sam Baum (Richard Greenblatt) has just hired Garfield Hampson, Jr. (Rick Roberts) to write a screenplay whose theme is anti-Semitism. In an opening telephone conversation the crass movie titan reveals that his rival, Twentieth-Century Fox, is about to produce Gentleman's Agreement, and since he knows that there is room for only one 'Jew movie', the race is on.

Act one is dedicated to the discussion between the two men. During this aimless fifty-minute scene, Hampson raises the issue of immigranta promulgating American myths in place of telling more personal, more genuine stories. The WASP cannot understand the Jew. But by the end of the act, when a telephone conversation is supposed to increase the stage temperature but doesn't, the audience cannot understand the play.

And then at the top of act two, we meet the eponymous son of the movie czar at the party celebrating his bar mitzvah. The son-and-father scene is badly plotted, more badly written and, to move to the next level, most badly performed. The lack of chemistry between the older and younger actors is deafening, and the lack of help extended to the youngster by the director, Alisa Palmer, is hard to miss. What is the point of this scene? Are we being asked to accept Baum, pere, as a warm and human father who has 'issues' in his working life? Or, is the writer just subscribing to the notion that an at-home scene plays well and serves to stir the kishkes?

Mid-way through the act, Hampson arrives with a gift for the young boy, and we are treated to the reality that Baum, fils, prefers gelt to hardware. A kop just like his dad, you betcha.

But here is where the play deteriorates big time. With sonny-boy gone to bed, after a screaming match that climaxes with older Baum demanding his son drop his PJ's to show what being Jewish is all about, the two adults have at it. Hampson returns to his theme of acculturation and Baum responds with more sputter and bark.

Roberts manages to carve out a profile of a character that the empty writing cannot complete. Greenblatt's Baum is never convincing. First, his accent is as phony as the pieties Goldfarb has written for him. (Maybe the Wandering Jew is understood here to be one who is forced to travel until he finds a dialect that he can hold onto.) Secondly, the actor's characterization has neither charm nor charisma. If the movie studio giants were anything, they were masters of a personal mystique that somehow overrode their relentless egos and bottomless desire for omnipotence. Without these qualities, the character of Baum is sound and fury signifying not much at all beyond the image of a grasping real estate agent.

Curiously lacking, too, is any genuine Jewish atmosphere. Much is said about the place of being Jewish in Baum's life. He criticizes Hampson for misunderstanding what being an American Jew is all about. In fact, he accuses the writer of being the worst kind of anti-Semite, the kind who doesn't even know it. But it's hollow sounding and hollow acting. And for a play with lots of Yiddishkeit sprinkled for ambience, there's absolutely no tam.

The evening's most false note is saved for the last. Sonny-boy sings his Torah blessings as his father reacts to the news that relatives have been lost in the war. The soundtrack music that opened the evening returns and overwhelms the youngster's voice and the father's sobs. The moment passes as nothing more than the prefabricated reimagining of what life might be like in a three-dimensional universe. But what we are left with is a tableau straight out of a stale imagination or, perhaps, an easy to dismiss B film.

Adam Baum and the Jew Movie is not very good, but its writer possesses insight -- here disregarded -- that may serve his future work far better.

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