Jenny Chow is in good hands at WHAT
Jennifer Marcus is afraid, very afraid. Though the 22-year-old woman, Asian-born but American by adoption, is a certified genius, she has a mega-size case of agoraphobia joined to an obsessive-compulsive disorder that keeps her trapped inside her parents’ home in California. It’s her computer that frees her to travel the chat rooms of the globe in an increasingly frantic search for her biological mother.
The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow
Welcome to The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, the 21st-century comic fantasia dreamed up by playwright Rolin Jones while he was still a first-year grad student at the Yale School of Drama. A finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize, the play opens the season at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater (through June 17) in an imaginative and entertaining production directed by Brendan Hughes.
Jennifer Marcus, portrayed smartly by Teresa Lim, is a flesh-and-blood character. Jenny Chow is her robotic clone, invented by Marcus to take her place on the trip to a rural Chinese village where her birth mother lives. The gimmick is that the second Jenny is brought to life in the person of an actress — the adorable and clever Julia Chan as a latter-day Coppelia, except that the robot seems to develop a mind of her own.
Meanwhile, Jennifer’s adoptive parents — Adele, cast in Jennifer’s mind as a variant of the evil Queen in Disney’s Snow White, and her father, bumbling do-gooder Mr. Marcus — are coping with Jennifer’s behavior as best they can. Adele is the bad cop, played convincingly by Dee Nelson; she’s a mom who needs her daughter to be perfect in every way. Stephen Russell’s good-cop dad is more consoling but still cherishes memories of his baby daughter as the mascot of the high-school cheerleading squad. What’s most true to life is their ignorance of Jennifer’s far-ranging computer itinerary. (In the play’s most affecting scene, which is spoken in Chinese, the actors playing the American parents transform into the birth mother and her husband.)
Add to the home team Jennifer’s boyfriend, Todd, who’s made goofy but appealing by Ben Haas, and a quartet of Jennifer’s cyberspace buddies: a mad scientist who serves as her mentor, a pervert of a Mormon elder, a cynical know-it-all US Army lieutenant, and the Army procurement flunky. All four are rolled up in the chameleon-like body of actor Steven Barkhimer, who endows this cadre of clowns with just enough stage truth to make them believable. He might be accused of stealing the show if the other actors were not so capable.
The script has its problems, most having to do with its too-ambitious mix of themes that include cultural displacement, parental obligation and expectation, and finding one’s identity. Still, Jones has written a play that explores the imbalance of a society that’s giddy with the possibilities of exploring new technical frontiers while struggling to avoid the emotional landmines of modern times.
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