Randy Cohen didn’t set out to lampoon Mel Gibson. But the concept behind his one man play “The Punishing Blow,” which opens August 13 starring Seth Duerr, might lead one to believe that he did. It’s the story of a bile-filled college professor, prone to incendiary Jew-baiting remarks who, arrested for drunk driving, is forced to take anger management classes and give a lecture on a figure from a list of The 100 Most Influential Jews of All Time.
A number of years ago, Cohen ran across the story of Daniel Mendoza, the legendary 18th century boxer. This is the story he wanted to write.
Mendoza was an English Heavyweight Champion. He transformed the game, inventing what was at the time called scientific boxing, which, Cohen explained to me, means, “He figured out how a little man could beat a big man.” The dodge and the weave. The intellectual game. He captured the imagination of the public and became one of the most famous men of his era — the Muhammad Ali of the 18th century. After his career ended, he went on to have a secondary career touring the country in musical variety acts, drawing people in with his celebrity and demonstrating scientific boxing.
Crucially, Mendoza was also a Jew, and at that time, though England had a flourishing Jewish community, they were despised, cursed at, sometimes beaten in the street. Mendoza’s celebrity helped begin to change that. “He was such a riveting figure,” Cohen said, “that he humanized Jews in some ways. It was an extraordinary story and I was eager to write it.”
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