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A CurtainUp Review

I'm sure spanking Shelly is like the best thing ever. I'm just not comfortable being in a... spank club... with you.— Eric after a dinner party at Zach's house which was interrupted by the hosts abruptly leaving the dining room for a Christian Domestic Discipline session in the kitchen
It's not a spank club...— Zach
Whatever. I just don't. We're just not that sexually...— Eric

It's not a sex thing. . . It's religious.. .Like part of our devotions. . . It’s called CDD. Christian Domestic Discipline. There are groups on line. Check it out. It’s legit.— Zach
Rear: Elizabeth Reaser Justin Bartha; front: Nicole Lowrance and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe (Photo by Jenny Anderson)(Photo: )
Puppet ministries like the one that inspired Robert Askins' story about an unhappy, sexually repressed Texas teen are part of many Christian churches. Askins' own mother actually ran one. However, the foul-mouthed puppet Jerome of his little engine that could comedy, Hand to God was strictly a product of Askins' imagination. (our review of that play which is up for a Tony as of this writing here). Permission is about another heretofore theatrically unexplored and little known evangelical Christian practice. This one is inspired by an internet supported sub-culture, without any brick and mortar affiliation. One can't blame MCC from piggy-backing on the buzz created by Hand to God's well received Broadway transfer by rushing another Askins play to its Lucille Lortel stage — perhaps hoping that its subject matter will establish Askins the as the theater's chronicler of modern day Christian life styles, as WASP culture did for A.R. Gurney.

If the packed house at the performance I attended is any indication, the Askins buzz did pay off. Unfortunately, Permission is too much an idea still looking to morph into a play with interesting, sympathetic characters, a plot that goes somewhere, and laughs with a sharper satirical edge. All of which happened in Hand to God but doesn't happen here.

That's not to say that Alex Timbers directed and staged Permission smartly. The problem is that he's got less to work with than he did previously in shows like the clever and entertaining Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, Here Lies Love and Peter and the Starcatcher.

The design team supports the story and the actors give their all. Permission does provide some understanding of what drives two Texas couples to buy into the acronym loving re-interpretation of Bible passages, but the best actors in the world can't make these characters rise above caricature. As bigotry thrives on ordinary peoples' economic and emotional failures, so apparently do questionable Christian rituals seeking validation from passages in the Bible.

Permission is aptly set in Waco, Texas, a town all too often associated with extremism.(A shootout between two rival motor cycle gangs is making news as I write this). When we first meet them, the two couples at the play's center could pass as anyone's neighbors in any suburb.

Michelle, a lawyer, and Zach, a retail entrepreneur (Nicole Lowrance and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) belong to the same church as Cynthia, a wannabe novelist, and Eric, a local college's computer expert (Elizabeth Reiser and Justin Bartha). Both men see their manhood tied to their careers. Zach seems to have recovered from losing his job with his current enterprise , but his deep seated insecurities are exacerbated by being married to a high achiever. Eric seems to lack the get-up-and-go to get a department head appointment which has apparently also affected his relationship with his wife.

As for the women, Michelle is clearly an example of smart women making foolish choices. She married Zach when he was down and out from losing his job and seems to have agreed to the Christian Discipline life style to feed her husband's fragile ego. For Cynthia and Zach the bible supported man-as-absolute-master thing turns out to be less "for Jesus" than to indulge their sado-masochist inclinations. It's in act two, when Cynthia and Eric go all-out with the spanking aspects of Christian Discipline, that Permission hits a big bump and turns downright silly.

The addition of a fifth character, Eric's devoted assistant Jeanie (Talene Monahon), further detracts and in fact adds to the script's problems. That the sexual undercurrents will surface is predictable from the get-go; the extreme to which that development will take the play is slightly more surprising but also builds on the script's failure to be meaningful and not just end things with a farcical finale.

I'll admit that the spanking that's an important part of the devout Christians' marriages Mr. Atkins explores strikes me too close to spousal abuse to be funny. A 2013 article entitled "Spanking for Jesus: Inside the Unholy World of Christian Domestic Discipline" in The Daily Beast by Brandy Zad bears this out. ( Though the article writer quotes some who sing this alternative marital lifestyle's praises, the examples show these men to be no more doing God's work than other wife beaters.

The Fifty Shades of Grey books are actually funnier and more honest snce they make no pretense at being anything other than S&M erotica. Their spectacularly awful writing adds to the humor. The movies and various parodies those books have spouted also make no attempt to reflect on anything of social significance.

Maybe to unearth any potential for the sort of serio-comic result Hand to God achieved, Permission needs Tyrone the puppet to serve as co-director and commentator.

Permission by Robert Askins
Directed by Alex Timbers
Cast: Justin Bartha (Eric), Elizabeth Reaser (Cynthia), Nicole Lowrance (Michelle), Talene Monahon (Jeanie), Lucas Near-Verbrugghe (Zach).
Sets: David Korins
Costumes: Paloma Young
Lighting: David Weiner
Sound: M. L. Dogg
Fight Director: J. David Brimmer
Stage Manager: B. D. White Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, includes an intermission
MCC at the Lucille Lortel Theatre 121 Christopher Street
From 4/29/15; opening 5/20/15; closing 6/14/15.
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