Never heard of Christian Domestic Discipline? Let Robert Askins enlighten you. According to a religious doctrine observed in certain churches known to the playwright, it’s the practice of inflicting corporal punishment on one’s wife — not for the naughty thrill of it, mind you, but for the love of Jesus. In the more irreverent terms of “Permissions,” a new comedy by the scribe of “Hand to God” (a Tony Awards nominee for best play), CDD is about working up a sexual sweat by spanking your spouse.
The play opens in an excruciatingly bland living/dining room (designed by David Korins, holding his nose) somewhere in Texas. Southern Texas. There’s nothing distinctive, or even personal, about the furnishings, except for a crucifix prominently displayed on the wall.
Zach (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), a blowhard entrepreneur who owns a sports equipment store and plans to expand the business into an “empire,” is telling his friend Eric (Justin Bartha) a funny story about “sexually euphemistic” sports items (i.e., tennis balls, stuffed in a kid’s pants). Except these guys have absolutely no sense of humor whatsoever (“I know how the ridiculous offends you,” Eric says) and Zach is outraged by the … well, balls of the kid who pulled the joke on him.
But the really funny thing is, these guys can’t seem to keep their hands off each other. More arm-punching and other body contact than in the locker room of a winning team after an NFL game. Is this horsing around some kind of jock foreplay?
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As it turns out, both Zach and Eric are married to other people — not guy people, but women people, one of whom, Zach’s wife, Michelle (Nicole Lowrance), is busy in the kitchen dishing up a dinner for Eric and his wife, Cynthia (Elizabeth Reaser). Aside from defining the character relationships, which adhere to the basic, church-sanctioned roles of dominant males and subservient (if seething) females, not a whole lot happens in this first act.
Not that it’s without humor. Zach gives poor, ineffectual Eric some wonderfully cynical tips on how to politick with powerful church elders at cross-fit training and on an upcoming mission to Cancun. His wife, Cynthia, comes at Eric from a different angle, throwing snide digs at him for collecting dolls (“action figures,” he insists) and being too much of a wimp to man up and ask the dean to make him permanent (as opposed to perennial “acting”) chairman of the computer science department.
And when Michelle points out that Cyndy is being just a teeny bit passive-aggressive, Eric jumps in with the observation that “passive-aggressive is better than aggressive-aggressive.”
But the actors, under helmer Alex Timbers’ carefully calibrated direction, seem to be doing most of the work here. Near-Verbrugghe (“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”) has Zach’s cock-of-the-walk strut down cold. Bartha (“The Hangover,” “Lend Me a Tenor”) is all hunched shoulders and caved-in ego as poor Eric. Reaser (fresh off her guest star role in “Mad Men”) has perfected that nasal whine of “delicate” wives who are allergic to everything, especially their husbands. And Lowrance is downright delicious as Michelle, a high-powered lawyer absolutely seething with rage at being reduced to “the little woman in the kitchen.”
But there’s only so much humor to be milked from that dinner party, and it isn’t until the very end of the act — when Eric and Cyndy catch their hosts practicing Christian Domestic Discipline, with Zach putting Michelle over his knee and enthusiastically punishing her for her wifely transgressions. “We have to do better. For ourselves and for the Almighty,” Zach exclaims, walloping his wife’s bottom with his leather belt. To which Michelle can only scream an ecstatic: “Yes! Oh, God, yes!”
Now, that’s what we’d call an effective way to end the first act of a domestic comedy. But the second act, surprisingly, is a letdown. Askins delivers the expected plot developments: Eric and Cyndy adopt their own variation of CDD, and in due time, husbands and wives indiscriminately lunge at each other with abandon.
But in the end, there’s not quite enough fun to be had from this Christian version of marital S&M, and strange to say, all the spankings (expertly choreographed and quite realistic, let it be said) become repetitive and pointless. What this comedy really could use are a few scenes in whatever church preaches this insanity.