Lesley, a history professor in an unhappy marriage, has a drunk-driving accident whose sole victim is a tree in a neighbor’s yard. It’s just his luck that it wasn’t in a forest: someone was there to hear this tree fall, and they heard the anti-Semitic tirade that followed. By order of a judge, Lesley’s choices are to face jail time or to give a lecture on a significant Jewish figure in history at the local library.

Lesley settles on Daniel Mendoza, an English boxer from whose historic victories transformed the public’s perception of Jews throughout the country. Throughout his presentation, his asides reveal more and more about the circumstances surrounding his criminal conviction, his androgynously named “beloved spouse” Gene, and his purported contempt of Jews.

Randy Cohen, author of New York Times Magazine’s The Ethicist, pens a nuanced and humorous script that delivers an engaging and culturally relevant look at the social climate of 18th-century England through the lens of an erudite (and, at times, pompous) white American professor who ends up teaching more about himself than the Jewish boxer. Star and director Seth Duerr carries the one-man show with commanding stage presence, revealing the many layers of his complex character. And in the end, the audience is left questioning if it’s Jews that he hates or his own path in life.

Added bonus: most performances are followed by a talkback with those involved with the production. On the night that I attended, Cohen and Duerr spoke briefly about their views on the protagonist and took questions from the audience. Their detailed and thought-provoking answers opened me up to many different interpretations of the story and shed light on the not-so-direct path that led to the production of this show.

Performances of The Punishing Blow run Tuesday through Sunday (times vary) through 8/28, and tickets can be purchased for $18 at Telecharge.com.

Second bonus: Enter to win a pair of tickets for the August 28th performance! Details below.

The Punishing Blow
Clurman Theater at Theatre Row
410 W 42nd St.

-- D. Kareem, NYCRD Contributor

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