Eunice Wong and Mia Whang in The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow
(Photo © Scott Suchman)
Eunice Wong and Mia Whang in
The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow
(Photo © Scott Suchman)
That's laughter you're hearing over at Fourteenth Street in the nation's capital as Studio Theatre's Secondstage takes a whack at presenting Rolin Jones' new comedy The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow. There have been several productions of the play previously, including one at Yale Rep -- Jones is a product of the playwriting program at Yale School of Drama -- but it's hard not to go away from the play feeling that Jones still has some work to do on this one. It's a high-concept comedy with lots of laughs and a few dark moments, but it needs an idea to fully flesh out the concept, some message to provide nourishment. Oh yeah, and an ending might be nice, too.

Here's the concept: Jennifer Marcus (Eunice Wong) is an agoraphobic, obsessive-compulsive genius, an underachiever who spends all her time online to the dismay of her adoptive parents, a workaholic mother (Charlotte Akin) and a doting, laid-back father (David Rothman). She is curious about her biological mother, who gave her up for adoption as an infant in China, but can hardly go to the Far East to investigate when she can't venture a foot outside her own front door. So, she builds a flying robot replica of herself, using spare parts she cadges from a gig re-engineering obsolete missiles for the Army, names it Jenny Chow (Mia Whang), and sends it off in search of her genetic source.

Along the way, we meet her stoner, pizza-delivery pal Todd (James Flanagan) and a closet full of eccentric, colorful characters, including a Mormon genealogy researcher with whom Jennifer has computer-phone sex, a wild-eyed Russian scientist, and a profligate Pentagon procurement officer, all played with comic frenzy by Cameron McNary.

Directed by David Muse, the incoming associate director at the Shakespeare Theatre, this is a frenetically paced show, crammed with verbal fireworks and satiric pot shots at pop culture, the military-industrial complex, a self-absorbed society, and the difficulty we have connecting with people in a wired world. The performances Muse gets from his first-rate cast are all snappy, particularly the tour-de-force characterizations McNary explodes on the Milton Theatre stage. Flanagan also impresses, as he gets laughs with extended pauses for reactions as the dull-witted but good natured Todd.

But the weight of the show ultimately rests on Wong's slender but very capable shoulders. Wong, who tells much of the story in monologue form as she communicates via computer, is able to toss off lines such as "One of the first things you have to get used to is I'm better than you" with such cute matter-of-factness that she makes the poor, afflicted young woman quite likable. Wong imbues Jenny with an acute lack of self-awareness, even as the character flits about with her compulsive rituals, repeatedly spraying the air with disinfectant and washing her hands. Jones' method here is to fill the air with Jenny's stream, no, make that river, of consciousness thought, and Wong delightfully succeeds.

The playwright is at his best when creating wildly improbable scenes. A breakneck-paced montage near the top of the second act that expresses the passage of time as Jenny builds her robot is pulled off by the cast with sure-footed aplomb; our first look at the robot taking to the air relies on carefully calibrated, deliberately tacky stagecraft. And yet, another wildly improbable scene, as the robot meets Jenny's birth mother in a Chinese village, is actually rather touching.

Akin, who also plays the Chinese mom, is called upon to rapidly switch performance styles, going from over-the-top, sitcom-style acting, to stark realism in several dramatic confrontations with her troubled daughter. In these scenes, Jones veers suddenly away from comedy and into gut-wrenching explorations of unrealized expectations caused by Jenny's illness, as well as the fears of an adoptive mother who fears her daughter's search for her past means she is being emotionally replaced. Wong, too, makes that transition several times, generating emotional moments both strident and subtle. (My wife, who had been laughing loudly moments earlier, was moved to tears when Jenny, on her hands and knees, eats some food her birth mother had prepared on the other side of the world.)

Jones apparently feels the laughs must be leavened with some meaningful study of Jenny's inability to connect to the world around her. The problem is that the playwright has no firm grasp of what he wants to say or do with our attention once he grabs it. Jones seems to start down several promising paths, such as when it briefly appears the robot's interactions with the Chinese mother will lead toward some variation of the "there's no place like home" theme, or when Jenny suffers a breakdown and the writer lets us glimpse the computer-like programs scrambling in her head while the robot observes her, a tantalizing bit of sci-fi teasing.

Ultimately, Jenny ultimately learns nothing from her experience and neither do we as the play sputters to an inconclusive and quite downbeat close. The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow is lots of fun, especially when staged as well as it is here, but one comes away with the impression this is still only the Beta version.