Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
"The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow" is a remarkably fresh and original play about a brilliant young woman, Jennifer Marcus, who is both agoraphobic and thoroughly engaged with her world. The plot is wildly inventive, involving Jennifer's creation of a flying robot simulacrum of herself, a search for her birth mother in China, missile research for the Department of Defense, a pizza delivery boy who wants to be an archeologist in Peru, an online relationship with a Mormon genealogist who's into cyber-porn, and a Russian mentor who's frustrated because he can only find Thai food in New Haven.
Led by a marvelously invested performance by Kimber Lee as Jennifer, Rolin Jones' award-winning play avoids being merely gimmicky and allows us to genuinely care about Jennifer's world of containment and detachment. Jennifer's fear of leaving the house is touching and painful, and with the creation of Jenny Chow, her flying robot representative, the parallel between campy retro-tech and her own advanced technological reality is funny and slightly sad. She teaches the robot cheerleading and the intricacies of grammar, but when the "Jenny" finally finds Jennifer's real mother, language remains as great a barrier as the cultural and historical divide that must forever separate them. There's convincing pain and need in Jennifer's dysfunctional family and social relationships, her desire for an authentic history and identity, and in her attempts to engineer a meaningful way to apply her genius in the world.
Tightly and smartly directed by Carol Roscoe, a strong supporting cast balances the breakneck pace of invention with a genuine desire to find meaning and purpose. The play admirably explores authentic emotions adrift in a sometimes simulated reality, blends technology with age-old human desires, attempts to find a mode of communication between the real people and the often more manageable machines in our lives. It's a remarkable and thoroughly entertaining piece of writing, marked with the occasionally awkward dramaturgy of a young playwright, but filled with promise and originality and intelligence.
Kimber Lee easily delivers the contemporary vernacular (the "f" word is used with the casual frequency of a comma), and also convinces us of her unforced brilliance (she solves a rubik cube in about twenty seconds. "It's so easy," she says) and her underlying fear and insecurity and emotional undernourishment. Her relationship with her pizza-delivery friend Todd (an endearing and effortless performance by Trick Danneker) feels natural and familiar. Her father, warmly played by David Gassner, made him an average Joe, a decent guy who loves his child, and avoided the doofus-Dad stereotype. Her mother, a far more contentious and conflicted character, was played with strength and assertion by Karen Nelson. While the final scenes are a bit over-written and melodramatic, the performance was nicely controlled. Kelly Mak gave the role of Jenny a twinkle of personality that kept the humor in her robotic machinery, and also gave it a peculiar humanity without ever being completely human. Patrick Scott got to energetically chew a bunch of scenery as the Russian scientist Yakunin, and a Dr. Strangelove-esque military contractor, as well as the Mormon genealogist who IM's Jennifer from a Taco-Bell in Shanghai.
The set, by Craig B. Wollam, doesn't really do much beyond providing practical spaces for the actors to work, and the lighting by Tim Wratten is equally perfunctory. Emily McLaughlin's costumes are rather better, if undistinguished. The real technical standout was Rob Whitmer's sound design, which created more of the environment than did any of the physical objects. Combining pure sound, oddly evocative bits of music and atmospheric accents, it not only added to the dramatic action but created a kind of surreal context which was as virtual as anything on the computers.
"The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow" has won a number of playwriting awards, and Rolin Jones is definitely a talent to watch. Seattle Public Theatre achieved a real coup in getting this first production for Seattle. They've done it proud, and this is an entertaining, provocative and well-accomplished production.