'Permission': Theater Review
Justin Bartha and Elizabeth Reaser star in this new play by 'Hand to God' author Robert Askins, about married couples participating in Christian Domestic Discipline.
Playwright Robert Askins must have had an interesting religious upbringing. His last effort, the riotous, Tony Award-nominated Hand to God, deals with a Christian puppetry group upended by a demonic sock puppet. His new work, currently receiving its world premiere off-Broadway from MCC Theater, concerns the real-life practice of Christian Domestic Discipline. For those of you not in the know, CDD is a movement that defines a traditional Christian marriage as one in which the husband is the undisputed head of the household, with the wife as submissive as if she was married to the Lord himself. Oh, and there's spanking involved.
Set in Texas, in that hotbed of hilarity described in the Playbill as "nice, clean, suburban Waco," the play begins with a dinner party attended by two religious-minded, married couples: Eric (Justin Bartha) and Cynthia (Elizabeth Reaser) and their friends Zach (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) and Michelle (Nicole Lowrance). At first the evening proceeds normally with small talk involving such subjects as Cynthia's gluten intolerance, Eric and Cynthia's dispute over whether he collects "dolls" or "action figures," and Zach's participation in a new workout Bible study called — what else? — "Cross-fit." But things take a strange turn after Michelle reveals that she forgot to put the gluten-free rolls in the oven.
"Michelle, can I speak to you in the kitchen," Zach says, not as a question but as a command.
The subsequent emanating loud noises prompt Eric to open the kitchen door, only to find Michelle sprawled across Zach's lap with her pants down while he energetically spanks her, prompting the other couple to make a hasty retreat.
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The next day Zach shows up at Eric's office at the university where he works to explain, with the latter commenting in embarrassment that he and Cynthia have no interest in joining "spank club."
"It's not a sex thing," Zach explains. "It's religious … it's for Jesus."
Upon hearing the story that night, Cynthia is intrigued. "That's kinda hot," she comments. And since she spends her days mostly drinking wine and watching Matlock reruns rather than working on her long-gestating novel or doing housework, Eric decides that CDD might be just the thing for their marriage as well. The couple takes to the practice enthusiastically, with Eric even locking Cynthia in a room during the day so can she will finally get to work on her book.
Later, the formerly milquetoast Eric becomes so emboldened by his newfound dominance that he encourages the flirtations of his student secretary Jeanie (Talene Monahan), resulting in a torrid make-out session. In the second act, another dinner party reveals that things are not going so well between Zach and Michelle despite their adherence to CDD. And when Jeanie shows up unexpectedly and threatens to report Eric to his boss, all hell breaks loose.
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The play contains no shortage of funny moments thanks to its premise, which provides the theatrical equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. But despite the wildly imaginative flair he displayed in his previous work, the playwright doesn't reap similar magic in this broad comedy. With most of the humor generated by Cynthia's turned-on reactions to having her fanny whacked — one hopes that the lead actresses are outfitted with protective padding — the proceedings eventually become repetitive and tiresome.
Under the fast-paced direction of Alex Timbers (Rocky, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson), the ensemble delivers amusing performances. Bartha displays a comic flair that was underutilized in his Hangover films and Reaser, recently seen as the waitress with a secret on Mad Men, is hilariously unrestrained as the happily submissive wife. But despite their best efforts, Permission doesn't live up to its potential.
Those looking for real laughs from the subject matter would be advised instead to check out the website christiandomesticdiscipline.com. which outlines its tenets with a seriousness that makes them all the more absurd.
Cast: Justin Bartha, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, Elizabeth Reaser, Nicole Lowrance, Talene Monahan
Playwright: Robert Askins
Director: Alex Timbers
Set designer: David Korins
Costume designer: Paloma Young
Lighting designer: David Weiner
Sound designer: M.L. Dogg
Presented by the MCC Theater