The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
September 17, 2005
Rolin Jones’s excellent new play, The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, is about the mistakes that parents make and then hand off to their children, and how much parents and their kids are alike, whether they like it or not. The protagonist, Jennifer Marcus, is a young, twenty-something Chinese woman who was adopted by American parents and lives in California. Her adopted mother, Adele, is a high-powered corporate businesswoman. Even though they aren’t blood related, Jennifer has picked up Adele’s drive, her stubbornness, and her never-ending quest for perfection. The latter helped Jennifer when she was in school: she was a straight-A student—but that could also be because she’s a scientific genius (Jennifer’s “day job” is re-engineering missile guidance systems for the Department of Defense). She’s also agoraphobic, which makes working and socializing a little difficult. Luckily for her, she can do both from the comfort of her own bedroom—on her computer.
Jennifer’s agoraphobia really becomes an obstacle when she decides to find her birth mother in China. Unable to leave the house, she comes up with a unique solution: build a robotic version of herself—named Jenny Chow (Jennifer’s birth name)—to send in her place. Aided by a former teacher, Dr. Yakunin, who specializes in artificial intelligence, and Todd, her pizza delivery guy/stoner buddy, Jennifer sets out to find her roots.
Now, if the plot sounds a little crazy, that’s because it is. But, in the hands of Jones and his collaborators, it’s also blissfully refreshing and vibrantly alive. In other words: The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow is a triumph on every level.
Jones paints a portrait of a young woman who has the world at her fingertips via the Internet: she makes friends with people halfway around the world (one such friend, Terrence, a Mormon missionary stationed in China, helps Jennifer track down her birth certificate in exchange for naked pictures of herself); she can even work from home (once the DOD gives her access to their mainframe, Jennifer is in business with those missiles). But, once her work on Jenny is complete, Jennifer’s doppelganger gives voice to her creator’s real desires. “I am a bird. I like to fly,” Jenny says late in the play—an admission that is only fitting coming from a machine that has been programmed by a shut-in. Jennifer’s other self is the person she wishes she were (i.e. mobile).
Lest it sound like Jenny Chow is heavy on drama, let me say that most of it is hilarious, with Jones, director Jackson Gay, the design team, and the actors employing an intoxicating blend of wit and zaniness. Jennifer is bestowed with a casual attitude regarding her brilliance, which sometimes gets thrown back in her face. Consider this exchange between her and Todd, right after she’s taken a moment to solve the Rubik’s Cube he’s been laboring over for weeks:
JENNIFER: It’s really fucking easy, Todd.
TODD: Yeah, so’s walking through a fucking door.
Then there’s the comic relief brought by Jennifer’s online acquaintances: Preston, the harried engineer in charge of Jennifer’s missile work; Col. Hubbard, Jennifer’s imperious, no-nonsense contact at the DOD; Terrence, the missionary whose optimistic and faithful communication with Jennifer reveals a problem with premature ejaculation; and Jennifer’s mercurial mentor, Dr. Yakunin, who, according to her, possesses “a Shakespearean sense of betrayal and outrage.” (His first scene, in which he rails at Jennifer for not being in touch more often, proves this allegation.) As performed by Remy Auberjonois, these roles become a scene-stealing showcase. His superb comic timing and talent for physical comedy bring all four characters thrillingly to life.
Director Gay’s and set designer Takeshi Kata’s contributions are also remarkable. Their physical conception of Jenny Chow moves quickly, much like the whirlwind events in Jennifer’s life. Kata’s design, which uses sliding wall and door units, is the perfect complement to the cinematic aspects of Gay’s direction. In one sequence, set to the Bay City Rollers song, “Saturday Night,” Gay and Kata execute a magical, wordless passage-of-time montage—the centerpiece of which is the development of Jenny Chow—that would not be out of place in a movie. Later on, the two pull off a terrific car chase sequence, with Todd tailing the flying Jenny through the California hills in his car, and Jennifer safe at home orchestrating the whole affair.
It’s only in the play’s final quarter that Jenny Chow turns serious. Once Jenny is sent on her mission, Jennifer’s fanciful world of possibility crumbles as reality encroaches. I won’t spoil the conclusion here, but suffice it to say that the age-old adage about history repeating itself is applicable. And, while some may find the sudden shift from comedy to drama jarring, I found it justified and mostly satisfying. The actual ending is a little abrupt (I would’ve preferred a little more tying up of loose ends, but that’s just a personal preference), but, as a whole, Jenny Chow’s changes of tone are consistent with the plot and the themes that Jones evokes.
Jenny Chow is also blessed with a spectacularly good cast. In addition to the wonderful Auberjonois, Ryan King pulls his comic-relief weight as Todd, adding substance and dimension to a role that could easily become one-note. As Jennifer’s adopted parents, Michael Cullen and Linda Gehringer are both splendid: Cullen’s loving-but-dreamy Mr. Marcus stands in contrast to Gehringer’s fiery, tough-love Adele, but both are equally convincing and compelling. Eunice Wong tackles the challenging role of Jenny the android with ease, morphing the character’s inherent artificiality into something more akin to an eager and curious young child learning about the world. Anchoring the ensemble is Julienne Hanzelka Kim’s outstanding, spirited performance as Jennifer.
The walls of Jennifer’s bedroom are covered with posters, postcards, and pictures. The room is dominated by a large window that looks out onto the rest of the world—appropriate for someone who longs to fly beyond her borders but cannot. Even though Jennifer herself cannot fly, The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow soars. Catch it before its up and gone.