Did you read the title? Gosh, I’m almost too clever for my own good. Speaking of cleverness (I do the very best segue ways, too), there really is something remarkably intelligent about The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow.
And while a person ought to expect a thoroughly synapse-popping experience during an evening of live theatre, it’s completely unexpected from a play about an agoraphobic in her mid-twenties who may or may not have built (and then lost) a robot.
You heard me right, folks. This play features Chinese character Jennifer Marcus, a twenty-two year old robotics and engineering genius who is completely and totally petrified of leaving the house. She has only one friend, a pot-smoking pizza delivery boy named Todd, and the added emotional weight of having been adopted into an affluent American family, complete with all the affluent American family traits; busily working parents, a suffocating lack of communication, and an equally suffocating lack of compassion. And, like all the adopted daughters of affluent American families, Jennifer Marcus feels an overwhelming need to connect with her birth mother in China. But how will she do that while still remaining clean and germ-free in her bedroom?
The result of that quandary is Jenny Chow, a robot with an intellectual capacity as well a top-notch propulsion system. Jenny Chow helps poor Jennifer Marcus to meet her mother, but the result is only upsetting to Jennifer. Soon after Jenny’s return, a fight with her adopted mother sends young Jennifer into a set of spastic fits second only to a very bad epileptic seizure, during which Jenny Chow is sent off into the wild blue yonder and, as far as we know, never seen again.
As manically written and light-hearted as the play tends to sound, the issues involved are actually acutely disturbing. Jenny meeting Jennifer’s birth mother (played by Charlotte Akin, who also plays Jennifer’s adopted mother) prompts a rather unexpected response; finally faced with the woman who gave her birth, the only thing Jennifer can make her robot say is “I have a mother. My mother loves me very much.” The play is not actually about Jennifer connecting with her birth mother; the play is actually about Jennifer connecting with her adopted mother. Meeting her biological kin and not knowing her at all was the kick in the pants that Jennifer needed to realize who really cared for her.
This point is driven home more strenuously after Mrs. Hardwick-Marcus, trying to help her daughter and relieve her own frustration, literally throws Jennifer out of the house, prompting the final fits of the play. Jennifer then chooses to take her own frustration at herself out on poor Jenny, claiming flaws in her design, calling her ugly, calling her an idiot. A psychologist would probably tell you that this is not uncommon behavior for children who feel that they have failed to meet their parent’s expectations. Such an incredibly funny and wickedly untraditional play is made a little bittersweet by such a disturbing ending.
The wonderful thing, though, about the writing in this play is the opportunity for design. Jennifer’s perfectionism and attention to detail is mirrored in the back wall, which is painted to look like robotics blueprints on a chalkboard. The set is covered with doors, all of which open at one point in time to beckon Jennifer menacingly outside, as well as a series of windows that will open and close to establish different places in or outside of the house. And the high-energy nature allows for the audience to relax some of their more strenuous prop rules; at one point, a plastic doll representing a flying Jenny swings across stage on a black pull-cord, and I swear I barely even noticed.
Well-written, well designed, with the attentive, thoroughly timed acting that truly brings it home, this play leaves not a single moment of empty space to be desired. A fast-paced ride from beginning to end, there is nothing dumb about The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow.
The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, by Rolin Jones, is currently playing on Studio Theatre’s Secondstage.