Robert Askins sets his new play Permission in “nice clean suburban Waco,” but the Texas you see here might not look the way you imagined. Sure, the characters go to Bible study groups. They care about their marriages. They’re well-intentioned: They eat kale to keep heart-healthy and want to succeed in their careers. But some of these heartlanders rely on a secret understanding to keep them on the straight and narrow, as one couple finds out.
When Eric (Justin Bartha), a mild-mannered computer science professor, and his novelist wife Cynthia (Elizabeth Reaser) visit their church friends for dinner, they are surprised to discover that their hosts adhere to Christian Domestic Discipline. That means Zach (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), a no-nonsense fellow who owns a sports-supply company, has a pact with his whiny wife Michelle (Nicole Lowrance): By mutual consent, he is the HOH (Head of Household), and whenever she breaks his rules, he spanks her. CDD, he later explains to his skeptical pal, is not about titillation or roleplay — and here comes the truly unexpected part. “It serves Jesus,” Zach informs Eric, quoting Scripture — mostly Old Testament — to justify disciplining a woman. He thinks it makes him a better husband and man, and Michelle finds it turns her into a better wife.
Intrigued (and turned on), Eric and Cynthia give the program a try, not so much for the religious part as for the personal goals it fulfills. As Head of Household, the newly assertive Eric thrives. He finds his inner masculine mojo and feels in control for the first time in his life, gunning cockily for a promotion. The submissive Cynthia suddenly produces chapter after chapter of her novel, benefiting from all the new household structures. But as both couples live out a caricature of old-fashioned subservient gender roles behind closed doors, where will the game end? What’s the ideological limit on self-proclaimed male authority? When does compliance cease?
Askins (who also wrote Hand to God) satirizes all the loopy ways folks appropriate religion in the name of self-help and shows us how people sometimes cloak their desires in the guise of faith. (Missionary trips to Cancún!) Despite a penchant for stilted dialogue, he writes some funny and occasionally racy scenes. (Let’s just say the actors need to wear a fair amount of rear padding for this show, in which the Bible isn’t the only thing that gets thumped.) And the play matches well with director Alex Timbers, whose 2006 production Hell House chillingly mounted a real-life fundamentalist morality drama condemning gays and secular humanists for their sins. Timbers has a talent for letting odd details pop up on stage and linger — here he scores comically when Cynthia botches dinner and her guests react to the pizza pockets she offers.
Ultimately, though, Permission goes for broad, goofy comedy and makes its moral points early on. Bartha somewhat overplays Eric’s transformation, going from absolute nebbish to confident stud. He stops dressing like a slob and owns his supervisory role at the office; drunk with his pretend power, he loses his head. By the end, when a lustful student (Talene Monahon) shows up at her professor’s door at an inopportune moment, the play degenerates into a conventional sex farce with a few modern kinks. Think of it as a peek behind the hedges of America’s pious suburban fringe, where surprising realities often trump fiction.