Adam writer-director crafts lovely outsider romance

With a free hour in Washington, D.C., not too long ago, Max Mayer visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He boarded the elevator with the crowd to go to the permanent exhibit, when something unexpected happened.

Max Mayer

“The last thing, just before they close the doors, they ask, ‘Who here has lost family in the Holocaust?’ ” Mayer recalls. “I raised my hand. And I realized that I was the only one. I had this sense of shame, and a sense of pride, and a sense of otherness and all that, which I hadn’t felt for a long time.”

As a red diaper baby growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Mayer hardly felt like an anomaly. Looking back, the veteran theater and television director thinks being an only child had a greater impact. But there was something else that made him feel separate from the great swath of Americans.

“For my generation, the identification with the Holocaust made you understand that you were outside, in some way,” he says.

The experience of being an outsider deeply informs the central characters in “Adam,” Mayer’s altogether lovely and touching film about an unusual New York romance between two 20-somethings. Jewish elementary school teacher Beth Buchwald (Rose Byrne) is rebounding from a disappointing break-up, while Adam Raki (Hugh Dancy) has Asperger’s Syndrome, a type of high-functioning autism that, in Adam’s case, is distinguished both by extreme intelligence and extreme difficulty reaching beyond the internal world.

“Adam” opens Friday, Aug. 7 in San Francisco, and Aug. 14 around the Bay Area. It played last month to a packed house at the Castro Theatre as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Despite her attorney father’s opposition to a relationship with a high-maintenance partner, Beth pursues her attraction to Adam. The film doesn’t emphasize her Jewishness, but it’s there if you look for it, and it was fully present for Mayer when he wrote the screenplay.

“I think that the sense of not being at the exact center of the society, for all of us [Jews], hopefully encourages a lot of us to be curious about others,” Mayer says in an interview in a downtown hotel the day before the Castro screening of “Adam.” “And have maybe a little bit more compassion or empathy for a sense of outsiderness, a sense of outsideness.”

Beth (Rose Byrne) tries to reach out to Adam (Hugh Dancy), who has Asperger’s Syndrome, in “Adam.”

Beth’s parents, played by Amy Irving (who’s Jewish) and Peter Gallagher (who’s not, but has played numerous Jewish characters, notably attorney Sandy Cohen in “The O.C.”), are clearly Jewish, but you won’t see a menorah or any such tchotchkes in their house. A key subplot involves a complaint brought against Beth’s father, and Mayer confides that — long before Bernie Madoff — he consciously avoided feeding into negative stereotypes.

“Honestly, I knew that Beth was Jewish and her family is Jewish … long before there was a legal issue in the story,” Mayer explains. “I guess once there was a legal issue in the story, I didn’t really want to bring those things too close together.”

A slightly shy fellow in his mid-50s who picks his words carefully, Mayer allows that he may have inherited his artistic inclinations from his mother, an actress with the USO who entertained the troops in Italy and Germany during World War II.

“I got very ambivalent signals from her about that,” Mayer confides. “She said that theater was a dog’s life and I should stay away from it, and also that it was the only thing worth doing. So I was confused, essentially, until I went to college and got involved.”

Mayer’s mother, whose maiden name was Helen Waren, worked undercover for the Haganah, Israel’s pre-state army — first while she was still in the USO, and then after the war when her cover was correspondent for the New York Star. She took a boat of mostly illegal immigrants from Genoa to Haifa, and was eventually arrested and held by the British. When she returned in the U.S., she wrote the book “The Buried Are Screaming,” whose purpose was to raise money for the state of Israel.

“She wrote about her experiences in Europe, but she couldn’t write about anything that was secret, so it’s less interesting than it could be,” Mayer says. Waren also wrote “Out of the Dust,” a 1952 novel about a kibbutz in the desert.

Mayer has his own connection with Israel, forged when he was 13. At the Western Wall with his parents, he met a Chassidic boy who was horrified to learn that Max hadn’t been bar mitzvahed.

“He wrapped me up [in tefillin] and very seriously had me go over the prayers after him, correcting me at essentially every word,” Mayer recalls. “So in some spiritual sense I was bar mitzvahed at the Wailing Wall.”

“Adam” opens Friday, Aug. 7 at the Embarcadero Center Cinema and the Sundance Kabuki Cinema in San Francisco, and Aug. 14 at other Bay Area theaters.