Adam Baum and the Jew Movie
Empty Space Theater, 547-7500. Through Feb 10.

IN 1946, just a year after the end of World War II, Samuel Goldwyn (née Shmuel Gelbfisz, a poor Polish Jew), hired Ring Lardner Jr., a gentile, to write a screenplay about what Goldwyn called "the conflict over the Jewish question" in America. Goldwyn, possibly the most powerful movie mogul ever, didn't make his film because Darryl Zanuck's Gentleman's Agreement, in which Gregory Peck plays a gentile who goes undercover as a Jew to experience prejudice first-hand, came out first; Goldwyn thought the U.S. moviegoing public would not support two "Jew movies." Daniel Goldfarb's Oppenheimer Award-winning play, Adam Baum and the Jew Movie, is based on this sad bit of Hollywood history and looks at different manifestations of American anti-Semitism.

The first act is a conversation in the film office between producer and writer. Terry Edward Moore is good as the Lardner stand-in, Garfield Hampson Jr., a WASP writer who has embraced the lefty rhetoric of his privileged, artsy class. Moore captures the chilly politeness that masks an inbred sense of class superiority. But Empty Space favorite Tom Spiller as the Goldwyn-inspired Samuel Baum is problematic. Certainly Goldwyn played the rube (the program contains some wonderful "Goldwynisms" or misuses of idioms like "keep a stiff upper chin" and "include me out"), but Spiller's cartoony, wide-eyed, drop-jawed responses overdo it. Goldwyn/Baum was also a brilliant businessman, and Spiller doesn't let us see the canny, fierce intelligence beneath the bumpkin.

The second act takes place in the Baum home on the night of the bar mitzvah of Baum's son, Adam. It is also the night that Baum learns that some of the relatives he hoped to see after the war will not be found. Jonathan Neilsen Kuhn's Adam captures the awkwardness of an adolescent who asks (like a little boy) if he can have more chocolate cake and who suggests (the way a newly moneyed young man might) that he knows the proper way to tip the hired help. This play explores important issues about assimilation and identity. Unfortunately, the portrayal of the central character, Baum, seems to perpetuate some of the same stereotypes as it purports to dissect.