Bare-knuckle boxing isn’t the first subject that one imagines discussing with Randy Cohen, the columnist who writes “The Ethicist” for the New York Times Magazine. But in his new play The Punishing Blow, Cohen has focused on the story of Daniel Mendoza, the father of “scientific boxing” and the great British boxing champ of the 18th century.
Mendoza fought his way up from the streets of London to become the most famous fighter of his time and to change the face of how Jews were perceived during that period. “He was like the Mohammad Ali of 18th-century Jews,” explained Cohen, an Upper West Side resident and one-time Letterman Show writer.
The Punishing Blow marks the first time that Cohen has written a play, and it’s framed as a lecture given by a guy picked up for drunk driving and goes on a Mel Gibsonesque anti-Semitic rant. The solo show is directed and performed by Seth Duerr, who plays Leslie, the anti-Semitic college professor whose court-ordered public lecture is this text of the play. “It’s the funniest play about anti-Semitism and bare-knuckle boxing that you’ll see this season,” said Cohen. It opens Aug. 13 at Theatre Row and runs through the end of the month.
Cohen grew up in Redding, Pa., and went on to make “complete mash” out of college, he explained, attending several universities before graduating from Albany State with a music degree. Eventually he moved to New York City.
From there, he began writing for whatever publications would accept him. In 1984, this led to an stint as a writer at The Late Show with David Letterman.
Cohen went on to spend seven years with the show and won three Emmys as a writer. “It was completely life-changing. The staff was really open to ideas that you couldn’t do anywhere else on TV.”
Most famously, he was responsible for coming up with the Monkey-cam, which involved strapping a camera to the top of a monkey’s head and letting it run around the studio. “If I’m a footnote in TV history, that’s what it will be for.”
He landed his job as “The Ethicist” in 1999 after auditioning with several other candidates. “Most of the people that the paper invited to audition were more plausible candidates than I, in that they had strong philosophy backgrounds,” Cohen said. “If I had to guess why I got the job, I would say my ability to write a funny line might have made me stand out.”
“The Ethicist” fields questions from readers on how to behave “ethically” in any given situation. Being known as the columnist who doles out no-nonsense ethical advice makes him a popular target at dinner parties, where people ask advice on ethical quandaries that they face.
“Its unbelievably gratifying. But there are times when you might prefer not to be asked a professional question in a personal setting. I never knew how to handle it until a doctor friend gave me these two sentences: “Well take off your clothes and hop up on the table and I’ll sort you right out,” Cohen said, punctuating the line with a laugh.
Cohen is an avid cyclist and can be found in Central Park almost every day as long it’s not raining. “Central Park, that urban jewel, is the most magnificent park in any city in America,” he gushed.
He’s also active with a group of West Siders that read a Shakespeare play every month. “The great thing about the Upper West Side is that, when the weather is nice, we can do our reading in Central Park, and when it’s cold, we can always find the back room of a bar that will open its doors for us.”
Cohen’s already written his second play, titled Car Wars, which asks philosophical questions about a couple that have been in a long-term relationship: Does marriage become more focused after years where a more profound knowledge of one another develops or does it become shallower, where a couple ends up more like roommates?
“When I write the column, I never find out how badly I’ve written until it’s too late and the readers point things out,” he said. “With a play you are able to constantly re-write and improve.”
The Punishing Blow Aug. 13-28. Clurman Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St., 212-239-6200; Wed.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sat. 2 p.m.; Sun. 3 p.m., Aug. 24, 7 p.m., $18.
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