We gave it a B
Christian Domestic Discipline, a true-life (!),wholly consensual assertion of power in which a husband carries out the upper hand of authority (quite literally) within a traditional marriage of faith, is the bedrock for Permission, the latest offering from the ever-adventurous MCC Theater (playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through June 14). And given the milieu here, it should also be no surprise that the play’s author is none other the Tony-nominated Robert Askins, currently enjoying his Broadway debut with the acclaimed Hand to God, which furthered the less-practiced art of missionary puppet sex.
Here, though, there are no puppets to speak of–at least not literally–as we follow a pair of Texas couples and their endeavors: the devout Eric (Justin Bartha) and Cynthia (Elizabeth Reaser), a computer-science department honcho and his depressive, food-allergic wife, and the higher-spirited Zach (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), a sporting goods store manager, and his wound-up lawyer spouse Michelle (Nicole Lowrance). Over the course of a rather uncomfortable dinner party complete with gluten-free rolls and kale salad (“It’s like…kale…where did you come from?”, quips Cynthia on the leafy ubiquity), Zach and Michelle are discovered elsewhere practicing CDD (i.e. spanking) after the latter starts to show signs of insubordination (noted by Zach with his own digits as a sort of teasing S&M countdown).
Eric and Cynthia, in need of some marital revision, begin to adopt CDD as a part of their daily routine and—much to their surprise—find the role play to be erotically eye-opening, even when it skirts the horrific, such as Eric’s ritual lock-up of Cynthia in a small alcove (with a bathroom, we’re helpfully informed) so she can bang out chapters of her long-planned novel (turning out “Gone Girl good”, in her own words). Adding to the mix is Eric’s bright, schoolgirl-attired assistant (Talene Monahon), who wouldn’t mind being next in line for his special brand of affection, which keeps threatening to present itself in the workplace.
A fine cast wring what they can from director Alex Timbers’ vibrant production (especially Reaser, who continues to wow with her comic prowess after her great turn in Neil LaBute’s The Money Shot at this very theater last year), with a particularly notable assist from scenic designer David Korins, who transforms the tricky Lortel space as if it were twice its usual size. But once the cat is out the bag here (or would it be belt out of the loop?), it becomes apparent that playwright Askins doesn’t have too many ways to explore this tale, which is actually the complete opposite of his far more successful Hand to God. (The latter is the rare dark laffer that’s actually even stronger when it isn’t being funny.)
The outrageousness here begins to operate in italics, and once it reaches a rather inevitable conclusion, what you’ve seen is basically another God Of Carnage/Clybourne Park-style comedy of manners, albeit one presented with gusto and a few red rear ends. But for such a loaded, hot-topic premise from a quite promising up-and-coming scribe, one expected a good, forceful thwack instead of some dirty talk and light taps. B