The Punishing Blow
nytheatre.com review by Paul Hufker
August 13, 2010
A current New York City hot button talking and debating point is whether or not a mosque should be granted permission to be built at Ground Zero. Fall on whichever side of the issue you may, the controversy has escalated steadily from the average citizen's opinion to Mayor Bloomberg's to the President's and seems to be a rising cultural point of growing attention. The question "what is tolerance?" is here again raised in America. The Punishing Blow, by Randy Cohen, is an examination of the tolerance (or intolerance) of Jews in England (after the national ban was lifted on their mere presence in the country by Oliver Cromwell) and in particular, the story of one Jewish boxer's struggle to assimilate, culminating in his almost mythological rise to the top, and even more mythological hubristic fall. The play, a one-man show performed and directed by Seth Duerr (founder and artistic director of The York Shakespeare Company, the show's production company), is framed cleverly as a lecture, given directly to the audience as mandated by court order. We later learn why.
Leslie White is a Ph.D. college professor whose life and career have taken a sizable downturn, to say the least; he is in an unhappy (possibly unfaithful) marriage, he has a drinking problem, and he recently hit rock bottom in a Mel Gibson-style drunken fender bender that involved the police and a caught-on-tape anti-Semitic rant which spurred the judge to mandate the unorthodox penalty of community service in form of public lecture. He is to give an earnest and informative lecture about a member of the people he slandered, selected from a list of the "One Hundred Most Influential Jews." He chooses the larger-than-life, yet widely unknown figure of Daniel Mendoza, an English and Jewish boxer, famous in his time. White admits that he hates pugilism and its "barbaric" formalized brother, boxing, and has a strong distaste for Jews on the whole, concluding then that this subject and lecture are the perfect punishment to fit the heavily inebriated tirade.
Duerr as White dives into an endless fountain of words, which flow neatly into eloquent and entertaining histories of Mendoza, boxing, and the treatment of Jews in England, among many other things, trickling down finally into a discussion of White himself, his once-flowing, now stagnated career and marriage, and what we all paid to see, his take on the night in question. Mendoza's fascinating tale—his rise to glory and inevitable decline—parallels, with less extreme peaks and valleys, that of White: the adversity, the potential, the sudden rise, and the faster fall. It's all highly entertaining, and took as long, I'm certain, for Cohen to research as for Duerr to memorize, and actually does have the feel of a legitimate lecture—would that all collegiate professors were so entertaining! When Duerr's character, pompous and piteous, finally gets to his own decline, he, to his credit, strips himself emotionally bare, bringing up the houselights, and instead of talking at us, as he has done for the more theatrical, lecture portion of the show, deigns to talk to us. He levels. This, as I said, is what we paid to see.
Unfortunately, the Ph.D. who gives a lecture with a very solid grasp on the who, when, what, and where on Mendoza—when it comes to himself—leaves out the crux question that stirs and amalgamates all historical fascination: the why. We never learn just why he is intolerant of Jews, and so the most interesting inquiry, in a rather unsatisfying fashion, goes unanswered. We are given a bit of background on the matter, but when the facts are laid out, it seems his feelings of animosity might be directed mightily at an individual (or two or three) but his notion of a people would not shift. He must've felt this way before he was wronged. The question isn't so much "why get drunk and say hateful things?" when taking into account White's state of mind at the time, but rather "why get drunk and say hateful things about Jews?" Is he angry in a moment or disgusted overall? Both? But again, why? Just as the question of the Ground Zero mosque (the topic of racism towards American Muslims is also briefly touched on) isn't so much "should we allow them to build a mosque?" as "do we trust them overall?" The latter question is a why question, and of course far more important, if for no other reason than its ability to set cultural and litigious precedents, and is also more theatrically satisfying.
Beyond that, I found myself at times feeling as though it was, for all Cohen's talent to conjure this ocean of words, and Duerr's to navigate the waves, too wordy, and it meanders a good deal at the very end. It also awkwardly and unnecessarily incorporates devices which I assume were implemented to break up Mendoza's dominating story line, such as the spastic use of a piano, employed, it seems, as much to stop the flow as to demonstrate Duerr's ability to play it. I also felt that the entire subplot of the wife might well have been superfluous. But it is all very cleverly and entertainingly written, as well as well acted, and tells an engrossing story of an important Jewish figure. For me, however, the power of the all-important question gets answered only for Mendoza, as the title character of the play within a play, and the aforementioned devices served to obscure rather than clarify the why for the narrator, eliciting that final unsatisfying feeling. Still, it is clever and snappy, and frankly, good theatre is good storytelling, and I had a good time.