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Permission: Theater review by Adam Feldman
“Is this what you want?” asks Eric (Justin Bartha), the first time he spanks his wife, Cynthia (Elizabeth Reaser). “Yes,” she moans in reply. “Jesus fucking Christ, yes.” Appeals to deities are common in moments of passion, but in this case the Lord’s name is not to be taken solely in that vein. Having hit plateaus in their marital and professional lives—he’s a scattered computer-science professor at a Waco college, she’s a would-be novelist with writer’s block and a drinking problem—Eric and Cyn are trying their hands at Christian Domestic Discipline. “It’s not a sex thing,” as Eric’s friend, Zach (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), has explained. “It’s for Jesus.”
Men should lead, women should submit, and they’ll all live slap-happily ever after: This is the goal of CDD, which gives a quasi-BDSM spin to scripture. To nonbelievers, naturally, this may seem silly or worse, and Robert Askins milks it for many knowing laughs in his hit-and-miss hit-the-missus comedy, Permission. As in his uproarious Hand to God, which is currently knocking Broadway for a loop, Askins is interested in the messy intersections of lust, religion and supportiveness. Eric and Cynthia are God-fearing Christians who love each other, as are their friends who introduce them to CDD: Zach, an aspiring entrepreneur, and Michelle (Nicole Lowrance), a hard-edged lawyer. Their motives and power relations are complex, and although Askins doesn’t stint on the humor of his subject, neither does he dismiss it as Red State twaddle. He and director Alex Timbers treat all the characters—even Eric’s geeky, smitten young secretary (Talene Monahon)—with gentle but firm affection.
The production is entertaining: Reaser gives a delightfully daffy comic performance grounded in solid feeling, and Bartha is appealing in a rom-com–manchild way (though a less cutely awkward Eric might add some dimension). Near-Verbrugghe is an expert at see-through male posturing, and Lowrance is fittingly tough. Even so, Permission doesn’t quite come together; the exposition often seems explanatory, and the second act doesn’t generate the momentum to put across the frantic, farcical finale. With a run time of just 100 minutes, including intermission, the play doesn’t feel full enough. With a bit more padding, it could land stronger blows.—Adam Feldman
Lucille Lortel Theatre (Off Broadway). By Robert Askins. Directed by Alex Timbers. With Justin Bartha, Elizabeth Reaser. Running time: 1hr 40mins. One intermission.
Follow Adam Feldman on Twitter: @FeldmanAdam