of the Fight
Punishing Blow: An Illustrated Lecture Delivered by Order
of the Orange County Criminal Court
Randy Cohen, directed by Nicola Sheara
Woodstock Fringe Festival, Byrdcliffe Theatre, through Aug.
The title is both literally and metaphorically truthful. Playwright
Randy Cohen (the Ethicist columnist for The New
York Times Magazine and three-time Emmy Award-winning
writer for Late Night With David Letterman) has crafted
an engaging, challenging 63 minutes of theatre, which unfortunately
end with 15 minutes of melodrama hammered on. The Punishing
Blow doesn’t need the hammer—just some knife work by a
good director, and a trainer to stop the bleeding long enough
to get the play to the final round. There’s an excellent 90-minute
play lurking in here, and The Punishing Blow is earning
laughs and applause at Byrdcliffe Theatre, up on a ridge above
Woodstock. And that’s reason enough to make the trip to see
Now in its sixth season, Wallace Norman’s Woodstock Fringe
Festival has brought in some fun plays that are unlike anything
you’ll see in the rest of the Hudson Valley—and The Punishing
Blow continues the streak. This one-man play stars Seth
Duerr (star of The Acting Company’s recent national tour of
The Tempest and Orson Welles’ Moby Dick) as
Leslie, a California college professor having a meltdown while
giving a court-ordered lecture—and it makes for great voyeur
theater. The lecture is Leslie’s punishment for shouting drunken
anti-Semitic insults after being arrested for crashing his
car into a ginko tree. Watching the gnarly prof give a community
service lecture on great heroes of the Hebrews is akin to
watching Mel Gibson’s film re-make of the 10 Commandments.
You’re waiting for the ginko to catch fire and commandments
11-20 to be texted to an iPhone.
The stage is set with a chalkboard downstage left, a podium
down center, a wooden table with a stack of books up center,
a baby grand piano down right, and a white screen hung high
on the upstage wall, onto which a series of slides is projected.
Each set element is used repeatedly as Leslie conducts his
63-minute lecture on the life of Daniel Mendoza—“the 82nd
most influential Jew of All-time.” Leslie demonstrates this
status with a magazine article, “The 100 Most Influential
Jews of All Time.” Mendoza is ranked 82nd, “one below Arthur
Miller, and one above Stephen Sondhiem,” Leslie adds, in one
of his many sarcastic addendums, which reveal that Leslie
means to bite all involved in his community service lecture:
the judge, the Jews, his wife, his colleagues, his listeners,
and most savagely of all, himself.
The spine, and the heart, of the play is Leslie’s truly fascinating
lecture on Mendoza, an 18th-century bare-knuckle boxer who
was the Chuck Liddell of his day. In a well-structured and
supported presentation, with illustrations and photos projected
on the screen and handy bullet points chalked on the board,
Leslie illuminates Mendoza’s fascinating life, and the sordid
mess of his own. Leslie spits out details and anecdotes of
Mendoza’s life and times. In 18th-century London, “Jew baiting
was a popular sport, like cock throwing or bear baiting,”
he tells his audience, slipping in asides about his own marital
mess as quickly as Mendoza threw punches.
Duerr captures the bitter, bewildered professor believably.
A lecture is, by nature, a monologue; yet the questions the
angry prof asks and answers impatiently himself capture the
strutting pedant and show Leslie’s affinity for the bantamweight,
“Lion of Israel,” despite the professor’s stated disdain.
Duerr has no fear of the audience and handles the direct addresses
well, using his four-cornered props as well as Mendoza, “a
scientific boxer” who used his speed as opposed to the stand-and-pound
style. The lecture becomes a dialogue between Leslie and Mendoza,
with added snippets between Leslie and the judge, Leslie and
the arresting officer, Leslie and his wife, Leslie and his
sneering colleagues. Duerr is riveting, until those unraveling
final 15 minutes, which are either a too-subtle Wharholian
allusion or just a haymaker that misses.
Punishing Blow seamlessly weaves Daniel Mendoza’s fascinating
story with Leslie’s less compelling one. Until those last
15 minutes, when the Mendoza lecture ends and playwright Cohen
abandons his winning strategy for a stand and pound style.
Bobbing and weaving the two lives together, Cohen achieves
a very funny and insightful play, which entertains and makes
its points. The Punishing Blow has enough of the sweet
science that a little tweaking will ensure it engages and
entertains future audiences for the full 90-minute match.