Thursday, May 21, 2015


Jenny Anderson
Permission, Robert Askins' new play at MCC, is an entertaining if undercooked tangle of ideas that don't fully cohere. Using, as a springboard, the apparently real and squirmingly icky subculture of couples who practice Christian Domestic Discipline, the play ponders--if, ultimately, not all that deeply--broader questions about religion, power relationships, personal happiness, and marital bliss.

Act I opens on two couples--Zach and Michelle (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe and Nicole Lowrance) and Eric and Cynthia (Justin Bartha and Elizabeth Reaser)--gathering for dinner at Zach and Michelle's well-appointed Waco, Texas, home. Zach, a slickly confident sporting-goods salesman, informs Eric that business is so great that he'll be opening a second store. Eric is not as happy or as sure of himself as Zach seems. A professor at the nearby university, he wants the Dean to make him chair of the computer science department, but doesn't have the self-esteem to fight for the position. (Look, I've got insider information here, but seriously, Askins needs to spend maybe five minutes learning about the way college administrations function, because no, that's just not even how it works a little bit, ever.) Also, his marriage isn't at its best: Cynthia drinks too much and has been spending her days actively avoiding the novel she's supposed to be writing.
At the dinner table, Michelle, an attorney, seems curiously unaware of and mildly perturbed by the news that Zach plans to open a second store. But she and Zach still seem happier than Eric and Cynthia, who take copious passive-aggressive jabs at one another. These are interrupted only by Michelle's more directly aggressive swipes at Eric. When Michelle admits that she's forgotten to heat up the dinner rolls, Zach excuses them both and hustles his wife into the kitchen. Eric and Cynthia stop sniping for long enough to peek in on them, only to discover that Zach has bent Michelle over his knee and is spanking her, both for being rude to Eric and forgetting the rolls. Understandably freaked out by the scene (which is performed on a split stage that is much too small for the design, and which thus makes the actors seem overly large and rather cramped), they split a hasty retreat.

Later, Zach shows up at the university, where he busts in on Eric and his awkwardly amorous secretary, Jeanie (Talene Monahan).

[Ok forgive the digression here, but I need to vent: Eric's hideous cinder-block office is reasonably accurate as far as junior faculty accommodations, but what fucking junior faculty member at any college, anywhere, has his own secretary? What is this college? Ugly-Office Otherwise-Dreamland University? Fuck. I want a secretary. But you know what? SCHOLARS DON'T GET THEM, SOMETIMES NOT EVEN AFTER THEY BECOME CHAIR OF THEIR DEPARTMENT. Maybe Baylor is the only college in the universe that gives out secretaries to their faculty members in the way that most other colleges give us free whiteboard markers and the occasional ream of paper? Maybe chairing a department is way fancier and more of a desirable, prestigious gig in Waco than it is anywhere else in the whole universe? I have to look into this. And then very possibly move to Texas before it's my turn to chair my department.]

Anyway. In Eric's ugly office, out of hearing range of his devoted secretary. Zach explains to Eric that he and Michelle are into CDD. He insists that it's a Jesus thing and not a sex thing, and that it's made their lives whole and wonderful and complete.

Eric and Cynthia are weirded out by the practice when they google it, but the idea also kinda turns them on, so they try it, and lo and behold, for a while, spanking for Jesus seems to turn their lives around most awesomely, too. Yet tables get turned and things unravel quickly during a second dinner gathering, this time at Eric and Cynthia's place. Fighting among the two couples builds, deep dark secrets are revealed, angry-sexy group spanking occurs, Jeanie pays a surprise visit that makes absolutely no sense at all, and wackiness ensues before things are tidied up--way too hastily--in time for the curtain.   

While it moves swiftly and packs in the jokes, Permission would benefit from some serious revisions. And also, research--not only about what colleges are, but way more importantly, about the CDD subculture itself. It's easy to take cheap shots at other people's religious practices--and granted, this subculture is particularly mockable for a whole host of reasons. Yet the jokes in Permission strike me as particularly unfair. Getting a bunch of hip, atheistic, sodomy- and sin-loving New Yorkers to howl at the weird Christian subculture is hardly a tough sell, after all. But who are these people? What drives them? What constitutes a happy marriage, and what doesn't? What is healthy religious practice, and what crosses the line into fanaticism, sickness, or abuse? Where and how do personal happiness, marital bliss, and spirituality connect, and what happens when they don't, quite? What happens to Cynthia's mystery ailment, what's the relevance of both couples' desire for children, and what's the backstory about Zach that Michelle drops only at the very end of the show? What is the beef Michelle and  Eric have with each other? And why is Jeanie so incredibly poorly drawn and so erratically developed? Does it maybe have to do with the fact that she does not actually exist in reality but is instead some sort of mystical sex-fairy that Eric has dreamed up in a previous version of the play? This might maybe make some sense BECAUSE ACADEMICS DO NOT HAVE SECRETARIES, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THINGS SACRED.

In sum, then, Permission was diverting enough, but I found myself wishing for more nuanced characters, fewer cheap shots, and more thematic depth. There's a truly interesting, legitimately dark comedy lurking somewhere in the play. But the subculture it considers needs a more clinically thorough, less superficial, more carefully balanced consideration. Hell, maybe Permission just needs to be slapped around a little more before a happier, healthier, more fully realized version can emerge. 

1 comment:

Wendy Caster said...

I love this review!