“Permission,” a play about “Christian Domestic Discipline” (i.e. spanking your wife) is written by Robert Askins, who is also the author of “Hand to God,” the Tony-nominated play about a Christian puppet ministry. On the surface, they have much in common – both take place among middle-class people in suburban Texas who are trying to use their Christian faith to supply what’s missing in their lives; both mix the playful and the serious; both get out of hand in theatrically crafty ways. But the one that stars a puppet has been amusing, shocking, engaging, and moving audiences for a while now. The one that has just opened at the Lucille Lortel with well-known performers and a celebrated director (Alex Timbers) is more likely to befuddle them.
Justin Bartha portrays Eric, who has been friends with Zach (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) since childhood. Eric is the acting chairman of the computer science department at a local college, and he is married to Cynthia (Elizabeth Reaser), who is writing a novel, or at least trying to. Zach owns a sporting goods store, and he is married to Michelle (Nicole Lowrance), who is a lawyer. All four are church-going Christians who regularly take time out to pray.
Zach and Michelle are having the other couple over for dinner when Michelle realizes that she forgot to put the rolls in the oven. “Michelle can I speak to you in the kitchen,” Zach says. Eric and Cynthia hear noises in the kitchen and open the door to discover that Michelle is bent over Zach’s knee, her dress up, a hairbrush in his hand.
Eric and Cynthia leave quickly, weirded out, but the next day Zach explains that what they were doing was not sexual; it was religious. They were engaging in Christian Domestic Discipline, or CDD. This is an actual thing – you can Google it; that is what Cynthia does when Eric tells her about his conversation with Zach. “In a CDD marriage the wife is submissive to her husband as if the Lord Himself was her husband,” she reads from a website on her computer. “The husband is to love his wife as himself. He is to be a servant, and lead by example.”
Eric and Cynthia spontaneously (and not very plausibly) take to the program, apparently turned on sexually by the spanking. They wind up embracing CDD enthusiastically – more so than Zach and Michelle. It changes their lives. Before CDD, Cynthia drank too much and wrote too little. Now Eric locks her in the “writing room” in their home until she gets her pages done for the day. Eric was disorganized and didn’t touch his wife. He collects action figures that his wife calls dolls and wants him to sell. Now, Eric has become more organized, although the other behaviors that his wife finds irksome haven’t changed.
It eventually becomes clear that both women see their husbands as losers; they’ve taken up CDD as a way of building up the men’s egos so that they’ll grow up and make positive changes in their lives and in their marriages.
There is a subplot involving Eric’s flirtatious relationship with his assistant at work, Jeannie (Talene Monahon), which leads to little more than added chaos in a climactic scene involving all the characters. The scene is meant to be farcical – literal slapstick — and includes some mild upending of heterosexual norms that might have been more surprising if I had not just seen much the same thing in two silly entertainments on Broadway. (Living on Love, and It Shoulda Been You.)
It’s tough to figure out the point of “Permission.” It’s one big muddle, made up of little muddles. Are we supposed to understand it as insight into the CDD phenomenon that the women are actually the ones in charge; or is this just meant as a sly plot twist; or is it the playwright’s attempt to ward off attacks by feminists? Is the play satirical? Aren’t satires…funny? A sample of the humor in “Permission” is the Cynthia/Eric argument over whether he collects action figures or dolls, which is repeated like a running gag throughout the play. Is “Permission” supposed to be edgy? It feels no more so than those self-consciously naughty sex comedies that were standard fare for the early 1960’s Broadway crowd. Are we meant to learn for real about this fetish subculture, and accept that it can be beneficial? How else to explain the play’s veering at the very end into a tone of earnestness about spanking —
MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel
By Robert Askins; directed by Alex Timbers; sets by David Korins; costumes by Paloma Young; lighting by David Weiner; sound by M. L. Dogg; fight director, J. David Brimmer
Cast: Justin Bartha (Eric), Nicole Lowrance (Michelle), Talene Monahon (Jeanie), Lucas Near-Verbrugghe (Zach) and Elizabeth Reaser (Cynthia).
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes including one intermission
Permission is scheduled to run through June 14