In Randy Cohen’s sometimes disturbing monologue, The Punishing Blow: An Illustrated Lecture Delivered By Order of the Orange County Criminal Court, a pompous and unlikable professor named Leslie White (Seth Duerr) is inconsolably irked that an Irish judge has forced him to atone for an anti-Semitic rant following a drunken automobile accident. His sentence: to deliver a community lecture at the Orange County Public Library. Leslie must choose to speak about one figure from a list of the “100 Most Influential Jews of All Time.” (If you’re curious, Jesus is # 2 on that list and Moses comes in at # 1). Leslie picks # 82, an 18th century Sephardic bare-knuckle boxer named Daniel Mendoza, who became a tough-as-nails ethnic hero at a time when “Jew baiting” was a popular pastime on London’s streets. Our lecturer, though, in this highly recommended production, has little intention of atoning for anything. Ascribing ulterior, mercenary or selfish motives to Mendoza’s every act (e.g., his agreement to proceed with a bout scheduled on Shabat is seen by Leslie as particularly loathsome) and positing dubious theories based on his research and “brilliant” conjecture (of course, Leslie declares, despite scant evidence, that Mendoza and his mentor were gay lovers), Leslie hijacks the judge’s well intentioned but naïve sentence and systematically contorts Mendoza’s virtues into stereotypical vices. Thus, the pugilist’s strategic thinking becomes deceit in Leslie’s description. Leslie rationalizes, fully aware of his own deficiencies: “Mendoza always discovered a justifiable motive. People do.” When Mendoza progresses from street brawls to money contests, Leslie snorts, “Does anything convey reality more powerfully than money? You know: to certain people.”
Leslie makes half-hearted denials of his anti-Semitism. He purports to direct his diatribe against the brutality of the sport of boxing. We don’t believe him because he doesn’t believe himself. “It’s self-deception that we need,” he even declares, approvingly, at one point. When he recounts how Mendoza took a job as a traveling salesman, Leslie betrays his seeming admiration: “How Arthur Miller. How Jewy. Sorry: Jewish.” Perhaps the key to understanding Leslie’s dangerous bigotry comes in a line he utters about two-thirds through the play: “It takes sophistication to hate properly." He knows more than you do. He’s thought out his racism, and since it’s not a kneejerk reaction, he’s ok with it.
Smug, sardonic and condescending, Leslie also is often bitingly funny. Mr. Cohen, who once wrote for both Rosie O’Donnell and David Letterman, has a lacerating wit; Leslie peppers his lecture with mean-spirited jabs at the audience and at his wife (he continuously refers to her, sarcastically, as the “Beloved Spouse”), who, behind the scenes, is incompetently running the overhead projector.
The young Mr. Duerr, who also directs the play, is surprisingly convincing as a middle-aged professor. He never falters during the 85-minute production and he completely nails Leslie’s superior and haughty personality, so much so that you may fight the urge to jump the stage and wring his neck.
The play slowly reveals the true extent of Leslie’s unhappy existence. If there’s a drawback to the script, though, it’s that Mr. Cohen never explains exactly why Leslie hates Jews so much; there’s no history that helps us understand why an otherwise intelligent and capable person who, in his heart, knows better, bears such irrational vitriol for an entire race of people.
The Punishing Blow presents an irreconcilable scenario that may be difficult for some in the audience to accept. To his credit, Mr. Cohen declines to moralize. Court-ordered community service will not likely rehabilitate this hardened anti-Semite; and one of The Punishing Blow’s virtues is that Cohen refuses to wrap everything up in a tidy package for us. Having said that, I recommend this play without reservation. Just don’t expect to go home feeling all warm and fuzzy.