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by Samuel L. Leiter
Permission is Robert Askins’s disappointingly uneven follow-up to his horrifically hilarious Hand to God. Like that Tony-nominated play, this one’s also set in suburban Texas, and satirizes offbeat practices carried on in the name of Jesus. The subject is Christian Domestic Discipline (CDD), an actual belief system that encourages husbands and wives to find domestic bliss by recognizing the husband as the Head of the Household (HOH) and giving him the authority to administer corporal punishment to his spouse (but never the opposite) by taking her OTK (over the knee), i.e., having the wife submit to a robust spanking by belts, hairbrushes, paddles, or whatever comes to hand (including the hand).
Given Mr. Askins’s refreshingly bizarre imagination, exemplified by Hand to God, in which a sock puppet has the devil of a time dominating the personality of a teenage boy, one would think he’d be able to mine the topic of men dominating women for all its politically incorrect implications; despite occasional laughs, however, and a capable production, when it ended I felt like taking the play itself OTK.
Act one begins at a dinner party hosted by Zach (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) and Michelle (Nicole Lowrance) for Eric (Justin Bartha) and Cynthia (Elizabeth Reaser). Eric, acting chair of his college’s computer science department, has a shot at becoming the actual chair. Cynthia’s an aspiring novelist who loves her boxed wine and can’t get much beyond her book’s outline. Zach’s business is doing well enough for him to want to expand, but Michelle, a high-powered lawyer, objects. As the dinner progresses, we note the tensions between each couple, and Eric and Cynthia’s mild discomfort (despite their own Christian piety) at Zach’s excessive zeal (he does a workout-bible study program called “cross-fit” and delivers an endless pre-dinner prayer). Meanwhile, when Zach counts up three of Shelly’s missteps, he takes her into the kitchen for a little CDD. Eric and Cynthia accidentally witness the butt-whacking and flee.
The action moves to Eric’s office, where there’s attraction between him and his sexy grad assistant, Jeanie (Talene Monahon). Zach arrives and tries to explain his spanking beliefs to Eric: “It’s not a sex thing… It’s religious… Like part of our devotions… It’s for Jesus” (yeah, right), but his uptight friend only chases him away. Still, when the action shifts to Eric’s house, the simmering strain between him and the couch-potato, “Matlock”-obsessed Cynthia finds an outlet when she learns of Zach’s faith in CDD; inspired by an Internet search, the couple discover that happiness is a well-smacked tush.
With Act I of the 100-minute play providing the exposition, Act II never finds a way to effectively develop the material compellingly. The spankings become not only discomfiting but wearisome, and despite a big sexual free-for-all that brings things to a farcical head, the laughs are too mild and infrequent to rouse much enthusiasm.
Alex Timbers provides slickly-paced direction, and there are effective, if not particularly memorable, performances by Bartha as the nerdy comp sci geek, Reaser as the blocked wife waiting for release, Near-Verbrugghe as the cocky CDD disciple, Lowrance as his hard-edged spouse, and Monahon as the frustrated grad assistant. David Korins has found clever ways to provide multiple sit-com locales, while Paloma Young’s costumes, David Weiner’s lighting, M.L. Dogg’s sound design, and J. David Brimmer’s staging of the violence (the actresses are properly padded) add considerably to the production.
Now that Askins has put puppet ministries and CDD on stage, one wonders if he’ll continue this line of satire. Is the Christian Patriarchy a.k.a. Quiverfull waiting in the wings? Quiverfull—now there’s a title.
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street
Through June 14
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).