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Thrill of the Fight

By James Yeara

The Punishing Blow: An Illustrated Lecture Delivered by Order of the Orange County Criminal Court

By Randy Cohen, directed by Nicola Sheara

Woodstock Fringe Festival, Byrdcliffe Theatre, through Aug. 31

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 it.

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.

The 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.

 


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