New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Connecticut Theater

"The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow"
Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven

Playwright Rolin Jones has an imagination that soars as high as the dreams of his heroine in "The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow." The provocative play of this recent Yale School of Drama graduate is now on the boards at Yale Rep in an absorbing production directed by Jackson Gay. This "Jennie Chow" is very much a Yale Drama School product, with several of its graduates playing key roles in its creation.

What is "Jennie Chow" about? For starters, it follows Yale Rep's current preoccupation with magic realism (a genre which marked the theater's previous show, "The Clean House"). Once again, fantasy interweaves with a hard, gritty reality, but this time, in our view, with greater success.

It is the tale of one Jennifer Marcus, who lives with her adoptive parents in a gated California community. "I'm rich, not super rich, just regular rich," she explains in an opening monologue to the audience. The 22-year-old Jennifer, though brilliant, has a deeply-troubled mind. Her mental illness combines agoraphobia with a compulsive-obsessive disorder. While Jennifer can travel the world on her computer, she cannot move outside her front door. Longing to connect with her Chinese birth mother, she creates a robot, one Jenny Chow. In this she is aided by a mad scientist, a lapsed Mormon, and other internet colleagues. While Jennifer is trapped in her pink teen-age bedroom, Jenny soars across the skies and into China. But connecting with her birth mother proves to be no more satisfactory than life with her adoptive mother.

Jenny is not only a delectable robot, but, we suspect, is meant to symbolize Jennifer's alter ego. She is the bright, productive side of Jennifer, and when Jennifer ultimately drives Jenny through the window and into outer space, she becomes a veritable half-person, a crippled, yearning girl.

It is a strong piece, because playwright Jones creates believable human beings against his sci-fi backdrop. One comes to care about Jennifer, her several parents, her one real-life friend, and even her internet buddies. Yet the play is not without its failings. It is slow getting off the ground, with ten minutes of gobbledygook before the story begins to emerge. And one wonders why the adoptive parents have not sought professional help for Jennifer. Or, if they have, why isn't it mentioned in the script? And why does the mother push her daughter, an agoraphobic, out the front door, thus precipitating a crisis?

Yet there is so much imagination and charm and ultimate heartbreak in this piece that much can be forgiven. Jenny Chow, as she emerges from boxes of body parts to become a working robot, is a delight, especially as portrayed by Keiko Yamamoto. Under Gay's direction, and with Lee Savage's ingenious set, Jenny soars to life. Fine performances, also, from Seema Sueko as Jennifer, Remy Auberjonois as a variety of internet chums, and Ken Marks as Jennifer's adoptive father. But Carson Elrod (Jennifer's one real friend) and Janet Zarish (as her adoptive mother) carry their roles to the extreme of caricature.

Yet it all adds up to a promising play. This newcomer is one to watch in future.

-- Irene Backalenick
Nov. 5, 2004

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