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The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow:
An Instant Message with Excitable Music

I've got viruses that will make you piss yourself!
---Jenny Chow

"Do you know how many Chows there are in China?" asks a Mormon missionary of agoraphobic Jenny Marcus in The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow. Jenny has sent the young man on a mission (in addition to his church sponsored one) to find the mother who gave her up for adoption to an American couple when she was a new born. Jenny, a genius from birth, is not daunted by the sheer scale of her goal. For her solving a Rubik's cube, hacking into government satellites, or building a humanoid robot are simply all in a month's work. It's doing household chores, going outside, answering the phone without needing to use a disinfectant wipe or communicating with her parents that has the 22-year old stumped.

Raised in a high-stress environment that demanded academic success at all costs, she is slowly crumbling under its longstanding pressure. While she can look at a missile schematic and understand its defects almost immediately, she is in complete denial about the depth of her obsessive compulsive disorder or the agoraphobia that has her barricaded in her bedroom. On the one hand, Jenny's life is in complete tightly controlled order; on the other it's quickly unraveling at the edges.

With a father who won't challenge her idiosyncrasies, a mother who is bent on having the successful daughter she always wanted, and a best friend who is slowly moving on with his life -- Jenny is in what has become known as the Quarterlife Crisis mixed with a severe mental illness. Wanting to leave childhood, not ready for adulthood, and daunted by the thought of making it on her own, Jenny has retreated into her bedroom and is quite prepared to never leave.

Recently fired from her job at the mall for consistent tardiness, she has secretly become a government defense contractor for Raytheon, helping the company upgrade the Army's guided missile system. Jenny's hope is to build a flying robot of a 22-year old Chinese girl out of spare government parts. In the process of creating a self-teaching humanoid, Jenny's goal is to send "Jenny Chow" over to China to meet her birth mother, who Terrence the Mormon missionary has actually found living outside of Shanghai. Via virtual gloves and vision goggles, Jenny Marcus can see and hear everything that Jenny Chow encounters. Thus she will get to see her birth mother for the first time.

Meanwhile though, there is her pesky adoptive mother Adele who is determined to use tough love on her mentally ill daughter to shove her into reality -- even if it means the girl has an anxiety induced breakdown. Alas, no one in the Marcus household seems to have the strength or will to get Jenny to a psychiatrist.

Playwright Rolin Jones has written a humorous and fun-filled script that pokes fun at OCD, agoraphobia, international adoptions, success parenting, Asian stereotypes, academic pride, Mormons, the military, middle-aged rednecks and pothead friends. Pulling from many of his own life experiences (he was a pizza driver, had a friend with OCD, lived in the San Fernando Valley of California), The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow is a fast-paced, roller coaster ride of humor and dysfunction mixed with a bit of science fiction.

It's completely enchanting while at the same time never hiding it's venom. Jenny Marcus is part spoiled child who is not entirely lovable and talks with a vocabulary littered with four letter words. Her adopted mother Adele is a hard nose, but not entirely dislikable woman whom you sense really loves her daughter and simply wants the best for her. While it's their head butting that creates the central conflict, ultimately it's up to Jenny to find the strength to face her inner demons and step outside.

Director David Muse has added a bit of comic book silliness to an in-your-face production. The touching moments within the play come across earnestly and not contrived. He has kept the pace up so that the show doesn't lose momentum and never wanders off track. The use of the entire theatre for exits and entrances creates a feeling that the audience is a fly on the Marcus home's wall. And while the action moves quickly in Act One, things speed up even more in Act Two when Jenny Chow the robot arrives on the scene.

Blythe Quinlan's set design is blue. Everything -- desk, chair, floor, back wall -- is blue. The background wall and floor are filled with mechanical diagrams and science notes, while its doors to the outside world open up to a blinding white light whenever Jenny nears them. A variety of household cleaners, rows of the same wipes and disinfectant products all neatly arranged, fill the shelves. John Burkland's lighting design ends the play as it symbolizes the shrinking world that Jenny is so adamantly holding onto out of fear.

Daniel Baker's sound design is upbeat and the addition of the Bay City Rollers' "Saturday Night" is great fun. Yvette M. Ryan's costumes fit the characters, the focal point being the silk scarf that Jenny wears religiously.

Eunice Wong as Jenny Marcus creates a complex characterization of an angry, troubled woman who is more intelligent than everyone around her, but who would like to be allowed a moment to catch up with herself. Tired of being pushed to excel she has simply opted out of life. And ultimately, her Jenny Marcus becomes a combination of both her mothers by taking out her anger on her robot "daughter" and then abandoning Jenny Chow in a moment of despair. Ms. Wong's delivery of comic lines is impeccable and she seems to be enjoying the performance as much as the audience.

James Flanagan's Todd is an underachiever with a heart who delivers pizzas and makes sure he spends time with his best friend Jenny since she is unable to leave her home. His goofy uncertainty and awkwardness come across as charming and you envision that he's simply a late bloomer waiting for a chance to blossom. Mr. Flanagan is very funny in the role and a treat to watch.

As examples of opposite parenting styles, Charlotte Akin and David Rothman as Adele Hardwick and Mr. Marcus, are parents in the grip of their own mid-lives as well as trying to discover what is holding their daughter back from her own potential. It doesn't seem to occur to them that they may be part of the problem. Where Adele adds to the household stress, Jenny's father simply ignores it. It's a wonderful example of two people not really communicating about the issue that matters most in their lives. Ms. Akin brings a humanity to Adele that could easily go out the window in a one-dimensional performance. Mr. Rothman's lackadaisical father is the dad many wish they might've had, but who is not the best motivator for a child through his constant acquiescence.

As the Mormon missionary, as well as the volatile Dr. Yakunin and other assorted roles, Cameron McNary shows a wide range of styles and abilities. One minute blushing and hiding his erection as he rushes out of a Shanghai Taco bell after an Internet sex chat, the next he is defense contractor Preston admitting to Jenny that he has "...some special feelings" for her. His Dr. Yakunin is part mad scientist, part absent minded professor. Incidentally he is also the Chinese translator utilizing a voice that you may not recognize.

And as Jenny Chow, the flying humanoid who is learning about life and "fire from the sky" (lightning), Mia Whang gives an innocent, child-like performance. When she leaps out of Jenny's bedroom window or announces "I am Jenny Chow. I am very excited," she seems like a 21st century Pinocchio. As Jenny Marcus' unknowingly braver alter ego, Ms. Whang carries an expression throughout the performance that makes you wonder if her Jenny Chow is confused or simply bemused by the antics of the humans she encounters.

Definitely worth a trip to Studio Theatre, The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow: An Instant Message with Excitable Music is funny, tender and witty. Interestingly, if you would like a white Rubik's cube like Jenny gives Todd, you can get one for a limited time at

The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow: An Instant Message with Excitable Music
by Rolin Jones
Directed by David Muse
with Charlotte Akin, James Flanagan, Cameron McNary, David Rothman, Mia Whang, Eunice Wong
Set Design: Blythe Quinlan
Sound Design: Daniel Baker
Lighting Design: John Burkland
Costume Design: Yvette M. Ryan
Composer: Matthew Suttor
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission
The Studio Theatre Secondstage 1501 14th Street NW
Telephone: 202-332-3300
WED - SAT @8:30, SUN @7:30; $25
Opening 07/06/05, closing 07/31/05
Reviewed by Rich See based on 07/10/05 performance
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