Persecuted Jews from Eastern Europe created the foundation of Hollywood, and the fantasies of America they sold to the world left Jewishness largely out of the pictures. With his 1999 comedy, Adam Baum and the Jew Movie, Daniel Goldfarb aims to cut to the heart of early Hollywood’s three-way intersection of self-loathing, assimilation and marketing. The play revolves around the conflict between a character based on Samuel Goldwyn, here named Sam Baum (Richard Kind), and the latest in a string of screenwriters hired by Sam to repair a script about anti-Semitism. The scribe is a proxy for Ring Lardner Jr., named Garfield Hampson Jr., played by Hamish Linklater.
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Authenticity made easy: Hamish Linklater, Gregory Mikurak and Richard Kind
Over the weekend, on opening night of a production at the Hayworth, a 99-seat theater on Wilshire near MacArthur Park, the show’s director, Paul Mazursky, grew agitated when the play hadn’t started 10 minutes past the announced curtain time. “I’m gonna tell [producer] Gary [Blumsack] to get this going,” he said to some friends as he squeezed out from his seat. That’s when I realized he was speaking to his guest, sitting directly behind me, Mel Brooks, who later commented cheerily on the action as the production eventually unfolded.
“It’s important to show the Jewish people worshiping their God,” explained Gar, the gentile screenwriter character committed to writing a movie populated with noble Jewish victims of American anti-Semitism — an image that made Sam wince as he imagined box-office death in Kansas.
Unlike Gar, Sam had seen anti-Semitism up close, and wanted no part of it in his film.
“What God?” Sam barked.
Brooks wheezed out a laugh. “Good line,” he muttered.
Three seats away in the next row forward, Mazursky stared intently.
“Look how they put the desk on the other side,” Brooks observed as the lights came up for Act 2. Brooks also noted how Sam’s tuxedo, worn for his son’s bar mitzvah, was the same suit that the actor wore in Brooks’ Broadway production of The Producers.
Brooks and Mazursky are the living legacy of the characters, and the world, Goldfarb has imagined. To hear quiet, appreciative commentary through the action from the man who dreamed up “Springtime for Hitler” was actually an irony doing backflips.
Richard Kind is a big, brusque actor, and when he hunches slightly, as he does through much of his portrayal of Sam, his thick facial features, combined with a tendency to let his jaw go slack, summon the image of Samuel Goldwyn as something between a bulldog and a stray, a man who once lost a fight and is determined never to let that happen again. There’s no levity in his voice, though there’s plenty in his actions.
“Fruit?” he snaps at Gar upon meeting him in Sam’s office, circa 1946.
Linklater’s Gar stares back with the glare of the insulted, the East Coast college grad serving the school dropout who has nonetheless earned money and power out here in the vulgar West. Kind’s head tilts into an interrogatory mode, as in, “Are you a fruit?” This opening volley merely strikes the flame that will envelop them both over the next two hours.
“You want some fruit?” Sam continues. “Nuts?”
Relieved but now off-balance, Gar takes a handful of nuts.
“Of course you choose the most expensive,” Sam chides.
And so the dynamic of faux hospitality, tortured gratitude and rising fury is now out of the gate and rounding the first turn.
Goldfarb is up to a similar spin on Jewish devotion in his Modern Orthodox, which was performed locally at Theater 40 last year. In that play, a Reform couple was held hostage by an Orthodox zealot who, for reasons somewhat contrived, wormed his way into their home and almost destroyed their marriage by playing on the husband’s guilt over not being sufficiently Jewish. In a moment of spite, which launched the main plot of Modern Orthodox, the Reform husband offered to buy an expensive diamond from the Orthodox jeweler, on the condition that the diamond seller remove his yarmulke in public.
A similar image appears in Adam Baum and the Jew Movie. Sam’s son, Adam (Gregory Mikurak), appears at home just after his bar mitzvah. His father swipes the yarmulke from his head — “Take it off, you look silly.” Adam asks his dad if it’s okay that he didn’t actually understand the Hebrew prayer he recited. “No, it’s better that way,” Sam answers. The zealot here is the anti-zealot.
“You’ve created an American ideal, and you’ve left yourself out of it!” Gar says of Sam’s Hollywood. Gar faces a particularly vexing task: To write a Jewish movie from a non-Jewish perspective, a movie about anti-Semitism that looks like Wuthering Heights, one that can be sold to the heartland rather than to, as Sam sees Gar’s natural audience, “12 Jews in the Bronx” and a few “guilty Reds with gold watches.”
Sam takes a punch himself when Gar insults the ostentatious bar mitzvah Sam has thrown for his son. “It’s disgusting,” Gar blurts out. Sam’s response: If it had been a regular Hollywood party, no such comment would have been forthcoming, but because it’s a Jewish party, it’s suddenly “disgusting.”
Will the real anti-Semite please stand up?
The tension is supposed to be amped up by the film of Gentleman’s Agreement being developed across town by producer Darryl Zanuck and writer Moss Hart — the story of a gentile journalist, played by Gregory Peck, who pretends to be Jewish in order to cover a story on anti-Semitism.
Gar reads the script and deems it pure fakery that will be dead in the water.Sam, of course, turns pale with envy upon hearing the idea from the rival camp. Only a Jewish writer could come up with a central Jewish character who’s not actually a Jew, Sam notes with panic. (Gentleman’s Agreement was released in 1947 and won three Oscars.)
Cadence is a word Sam claims not to understand. (He also believes he speaks with no accent — Kind’s “V” for “W” substitution wanders in and out, and it’s hard to discern if that’s a character trait or an oversight.) Goldfarb’s play, however, comes wrapped in sitcom cadences via Jewish standup routines from the Borscht Belt. Most of the jokes land, but when they don’t, the play hovers somewhere between the comedic and the ingratiating, and they render the core ideas deceptively thin. I left the theater more intrigued than affected. Only on reflection did the identity crises that form the heart of Goldfarb’s passion actually sink in — separated from all those jokes and an overly sentimental Act 2.
Mazursky’s production benefits from the excellent interplay among the three actors — particularly Linklater’s droll fox, responding with fuming dignity to Kind’s hound — all played out on Joel Daavid’s Hollywood Deco set and in Traci McWain’s period-perfect costumes.
Prior to the performance, a company rep announced that the other show, The Boychick Affair, is still playing.
“What is this place?” Brooks quipped. “A synagogue?”
ADAM BAUM AND THE JEW MOVIE | By DANIEL GOLDFARB | Presented by the HAYWORTH THEATRE, 2509 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. | Through July 20 | (323) 960-4442