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A CurtainUp Review
The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow
Jones' funny and fun-filled script that pokes fun at obsessive compulsive disorders, international adoptions, success parenting, Asian stereotypes, academic pride, Mormons, the military, middle-aged rednecks and pothead friends has already had several productions. Its Off-Broadway premiere at the Atlantic Theater, while surely one of many more to come, is in good hands. Jackson Gay commandeers a cast that's up to navigating its roller-coaster spin from a house in a San Fernando Valley gated community to China. Eunice Wong, who played the robot's creator, Jenny Marcus, in the production reviewed by our DC critic last summer, now plays the flying humanoid who becomes the twenty-two-year-old's more daring alter ego with an irresistibly lovable innocence.
Except for Wong and Julienne Hanzelka Kim, who now plays Jenny Marcus, the phobic adopted from an unknown Chinese mother by an infertile American couple (Michael Cullen and Linda Gehringer), all actors are double cast -- with Remy Auberjonois doing a terrific triple turn. His Dr. Yakunin's combination mad scientist and absent-minded professor scenes have the audience applauding as if for a show-stopping tune at a musical. When the agoraphobic Jenny Marcus asks Auberjonois in his role as Terrence, a Mormon missionary she befriended via the Internet to help her find her birth mother he asks "Do you know how many Chows there are in China?" -- but he then proceeds to find this human needle in the haystack of mothers who gave up daughters for adoption. Terrence's erection during an Internet chat at a Shanghai Taco Bell is hilariously covered up by his computer keyboard.
While internet chat rooms are hardly the new new thing in contemporary plays, The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, probably has the longest instant message monologues ever. The script's apt subtitle (not included in the Atlantic Theater program) is An Instant Message With Excitable Music. And seeing Jenny Marcus type-talk on her computer makes it plain that though she is adept at solving a Rubik's cube, hacking into government satellites and eventually building a humanoid robot, she can't go outside even for something as simple as taking out the garbage, let alone hold a job. She's also compulsive about germs and keeps a disinfectant at hand at all times.
The Marcus parents are of course a contributing factor, the house husband father (a disabled fireman) indulgently skirting the issue of her troubled psyche, and the high-powered working mother trying to force her into normalcy with tough love methods, neither able to communicate meaningfully with her or each other. As Rich See put it in his DC review of the play, the high-stress environment in which Jenny was raised has brought her to a "quarterlife Crisis " mixed with a severe mental illness that requires professional help to aid her in making her way out of the bedroom science/computer room into which she has retreated.
As the play opens, Jenny has been fired from the job at the mall that is obviously unworthy of her intelligence and has (via the internet) become a government defense contractor for Raytheon, helping the company upgrade the Army's guided missile system headed by another Auberjonois character, Col Hubbard. This propels her private hopes for creating a 22-year old Chinese girl out of spare government parts and to send this humanoid counterpart of herself to meet the birth mother Terrence the Mormon has tracked down. Since Jenny Marcus can see and hear everything Jenny Chow sees and hears via virtual gloves and special vision goggles, this will be her way of connecting with the woman who gave her away wrapped in a silk scarf that she still wears.
The high speed action leading to the emergence of Jenny Chow, goes into even higher gear in the second act, with Julienne Hanzelka Kim's complex and troubled misfit ultimately taking out her anger and sense of displacement on Jenny Chow, thus echoing the rejection of her birth mother and the punitive methods of her adoptive mother. In short the tragic dilemma beneath the play's comic surface does not end with an easy happily ever after ending. If there's one winner here it's Jenny's friend Todd (a delightful Ryan King). While not housebound like Jenny, his insecure self-image traps him in his persona as an underachiever -- until he has a hand in Jenny Chow's China flight.
Like many a young playwright has overstuffed his script with its nonstop dialogue and frenzied plot twists -- all intensified by Jackson Gay's production with the inventive Takeshi Kata do-everything set and Matthew Suttor's incidental music which is indeed " excitable." Still, while the comic book humor of both play and staging ultimately overwhelm some of the play's poignancy, this is an intelligent, inventive and enjoyable work and I have high expectations for this playwright's future work.
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