Theater Review: Permission Tries to Get Away With Something

Photo: Jenny Anderson

After attending a preview of Robert Askins’s new play Permission the other night, I can report that the cast’s padded undergarments, which got their own feature in the Times last week, are indeed worthy of notice. Or at least they are more worthy of notice than the rest of the play, which in trying to bridge incompatible genres — you’ll forgive my saying — falls between the cracks. Nominally, it is a comedy about Christian Domestic Discipline. (That’s a real thing.) Followers of this practice believe that in order for marriages to reach their highest potential, husbands must take seriously their role as heads of household by setting rules and, when the rules aren’t followed, applying punishments to wives who agree to the plan and thus are grateful. These punishments involve corrective lectures, Bible verses, and taking the wives “OTK” — over the knee — for a vigorous spanking, with hand, hairbrush, or belt. Hence the 8 of Hearts Shaper Panties: “a high-waisted garment made of sturdy mesh, with custom latex padding protecting the actors’ bottoms and spinal cords.” They also make a nice thwack.

But Askins has a playwriting problem here that’s not so amenable to corporal discipline. Presented too straight, the subject would be horrific; basically, we’re talking about wife-beating, even if the wife and Jesus approve. On the other hand, a merely humorous treatment would wear out its welcome in less than ten minutes. In order to preserve the possibility of hilarity, the playwright splits the difference by setting his story in a bright, naughty, retro sitcom world; you can almost hear the laugh track. Meanwhile, he undergirds the action with serious themes like the complacency of modern marriage and the feminization of men. These are explored in the lives of two couples from “nice clean suburban Waco,” where the homes of the upwardly mobile middle class are cribbed from Pottery Barn catalogues. (This Pottery Barnism has now reached the level of an Off Broadway trend.) Zach and Michelle appear to be the high-functioning pair, she a hotshot lawyer, he on the verge of establishing a sporting-goods empire. Eric and Cynthia aren’t doing as well. She’s a would-be novelist with barely an outline of a novel but a fully developed boxed-wine habit, plus a propensity for hanging out all day in sweats, watching Matlock. He’s a wimp unable to sell himself to the dean of his college, where he’s acting chair of the computer science department. During the course of the dinner party that opens the play, the sad-sack pair learn the successful pair’s secret when they accidentally walk in on an episode of spankery. At first mortified, they eventually come to wonder whether the magic might work for them as well.

It does, briefly: After a few OTK sessions, Cynthia has become a Stepford wife in a floral apron, and their house, previously disheveled, a shipshape Christian home with a lace antimacassar on the sofa. Meanwhile, Zach and Michelle’s trajectory is heading the other way. But let’s leave the plot there; it doesn’t really matter how the premise plays out. What matters is that Askins hasn’t been able to find a way to make the play’s two tones work together. He’s terrific at skewering Christian smugness and cuteness (Zach attends a Bible study–exercise program called CrossFit) and at the blinkered desperation that can make people believe in any panacea. (Cynthia suspects that her difficulties might be solved by eliminating annatto seed from her diet.) But when the spanking is revealed to be not so much a matter of Christian uplift as a way of fobbing off one’s libido on the Lord, and Askins tries to pivot the story toward a serious consideration of the way coupledom encourages a sad status quo, the material doesn’t bend but breaks.

This is partly the result of having tried to wrestle a stunt idea into a play in the first place, though Askins nearly managed the feat in Hand to God, a current Tony Award nominee in which a sock puppet comes to life. It’s also partly the result of an unsuccessful staging, for MCC Theater, by Alex Timbers. On an awkward set by David Korins, the constricted movement frequently leaves the eye with no idea where to turn, and the climactic mêlée-cum-orgy is impossible to follow. Same with the performances. Some of the actors offer thoughtful sitcom stylings (Justin Bartha, who plays Eric, was a star of The New Normal) while others (especially Elizabeth Reaser as a dementedly prurient Cynthia) offer wild-eyed theatricality. Either is fine, but both together leave you feeling not some new, insightful amalgamation but the bad faith of wanting things both ways. Perhaps further work on the play will prove that a better union can be achieved, but until then it may be advisable for the playwright — for his own good, of course — to invest in a pair of Shaper Panties.

Permission is at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through June 14.