Smarter than I am, too, of course: At 22, Rolin Jones’ hilariously neurotic heroine has reinvented the Rubik’s Cube to make it less pathetically simple to solve, analyzed the geological record as it pertains to claims about North American history in the Book of Mormon, and re-engineered an aging U.S. missile system—all in her spare time, natch. The project that actually occupies most of her attention involves singlehandedly redefining the state of the art in robotics and artificial intelligence. From the confines of her bedroom.
Preposterous from the get-go—and infectiously entertaining, in part for that very reason—The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow represents something of a triumph for the Studio Theatre’s Secondstage, whose younger casts, trimmer budgets, and eccentric programming don’t always add up to scintillating theater. Jenny Chow scintillates—it whizzes, bangs, buzzes, beeps, and dazzles. (The subtitle is An Instant Message With Excitable Music, and is it ever.) It makes you giggle and guffaw and remember just how much bounce a bit of energetic, thoroughly theatrical theatermaking can put in your step.
Of course, this time around at Secondstage the trimmer budget looks to have been fattened up a bit—Blythe Quinlan’s marvelously apt set is all sliding panels and automatic doors and walls scrawled with engineering schematics, a Rube Goldberg contraption that’s equal parts domestic disturbance and pure theatrical whimsy—and the younger cast includes the New York–based, Juilliard-trained Eunice Wong, who’s the formidable center of an admirably solid ensemble. The lights come up on her Jennifer typing furiously away at a keyboard, head whipping from side to side at what you have to imagine is a bank of flat-panel displays, glaring occasionally into the webcam that pokes its stalky head up from the corner of her desk. The bounty hunter she’s hiring…
No, wait, let’s back up: Jennifer, as she explains to her mercenary between acid asides about the flimsiness of his firewall—Jones’ script is almost more asides than it is dialogue and narrative, and what makes the thing so insanely inspired is that it all pretty much hangs together—was adopted 22 years ago by an American couple. “I was a girl, and I guess that’s not the best thing to be in China,” she shrugs in an IM; “I don’t look anything like a Jennifer Marcus, but I kick ass and I’ve got big tits for an Asian, so whatever.”
Lately, though, her castratingly Type A adoptive mom (Charlotte Akin) has been on Jennifer’s case, and she’s been thinking about tracking down her birth mother. The hitch—“I have this dumbass thing called obsessive-compulsive disorder”—is that she’s not so good about getting out of the house, so making the trek to rural Maigon-ko ain’t a likely option.
Smart, damaged, funny, wired—Jennifer’s a post-nuclear, postmodern, disaffected distaff Tom Swift with a boggler of a techno-answer for every problem. She’s more action-comic character than believable young adult, and yet Jones’ spiky dialogue and Wong’s vital, vulnerable performance somehow conspire to make audiences identify with her instantly. It hardly matters that her ingenious solution to that agoraphobia problem—an autonomously intelligent, increasingly self-aware, created-in-her-own-image robot named Jenny Chow (a fine Mia Whang), a perfect alter ego designed to go where imperfect Jennifer can’t—is ultimately less hard to believe than the second-act meltdown Jones creates for his brilliant, broken heroine.
It does matter a bit, though. The sharp swerve into psychodrama, sparked by a critical pair of encounters with that improbable gorgon of an adoptive mother and the distant birth parent who can’t offer the redemption Jennifer needs, derails what’s been a speedy, jittery buzz of a ride. Ultimately, it feels unearned: Maybe it’s that Wong and director David Muse aren’t doing enough to set up the fragility and fear that’s behind all of Jennifer’s accomplishments, or maybe it’s that Jones hasn’t quite given them enough in the way of hints to drop. (One early passage, involving a panicked call from the defense contractor for whom she’s been rebuilding those missiles, doesn’t foreshadow other disintegrations here, the way it might; it’s played instead for laughs alone.) For all its excitements, the play—a hot property last year at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre and a buzz magnet before that in workshop productions on both coasts—still needs a tweak or two.
At least there’s plenty to like before the plunge: Akin and David Rothman make amusing and sometimes even poignant parental units. James Flanagan is a pitch-perfect stoner as Jennifer’s one 20-something friend. And Cameron McNary—Jesus help us, stop the madness. No, wait, don’t: Find more outlets for the madness, somebody, and quick. McNary’s a one-man laff riot, playing a sweetly dorky Mormon missionary who helps Jennifer track down her birth mother, a chicanery-prone military honcho and his skeevy Southern-fried arms contractor, and, most flamboyantly, a wild-haired Russian robotics genius who’s Jennifer’s only real peer—and he plays them so idiosyncratically, with such heedless, exuberant commitment, so downright hilariously that it’d be a crime for some local company not to stage some explosive farce just so he’d have a vehicle.
And at least Jones, having steered his audience into the perilous territory of personal crisis, doesn’t head for some cozily predictable redemption once Jennifer implodes. The play ends instead with a calmer, quieter, but by no means “better” Jennifer pleading with the bounty hunter to find the missing Jenny Chow; she understands that she’s failed her creation the way two similarly imperfect mothers failed her, but she’s far from clear on how to set things right. Which, coming from a post-nuclear, postmodern, disaffected distaff Tom Swift of an action-comic heroine, seems pretty wonderfully human.
There are bulldozers rumbling in Zimbabwe right now, flattening whole neighborhoods and displacing hundreds of thousands of urban poor in the name of “restoring the beauty of our cities”—so when you hear that an autocrat plans to “tear down these wretched slums…to make way for a garden” in Bertolt Brecht’s 1944 play The Caucasian Chalk Circle, you begin to wonder if we’ll ever get this humanity thing right. The brutality, the cynicism, the corruption, and the self-dealing that Brecht is so endlessly, depressingly fond of showcasing are very much on view in the Open Circle Theatre’s production, but (happily for my pharmacy tab) so are the surprising goodness and sensibility that can make this particular play such a startlingly sweet dispatch from the Brechtian jungle.
It’s a fine vehicle, Chalk Circle, for Open Circle, which treats it less as a communist allegory (and it is) or a cautionary fable about the yawning American class chasm (and it certainly could be) than as an excuse for deepening the integrationist explorations that are the company’s mission. The overriding notion Brecht’s selling in the Solomonic legend of the washerwoman Grusha and her stolen baby is that we ought to be asking who can do the best work with the available resources. Remember that and it makes a certain sense that Open Circle comes at the play with an inventive fusion of sign language, spoken dialogue, singing, and dance, with a healthy mix of actors who can fling themselves headlong into a wheelbarrow and others who need to stash their crutches somewhere before they can flee pursuing soldiers across a bridge thrown up by castmates’ backs.
As with any experiment, some leaps land more confidently than others. Not all of the speaking ensemble members keep the pace of their dialogue up as they negotiate their signed accompaniments. Nor do all the translations voiced for nonspeaking actors seem in sync with their signed gestures.
Then there are the ordinary risks that come with theater—and with Brecht. The pace flags now and again. The stylization meant to distance the audience from the action can inspire impatience rather than introspection.
Still, there’s as much to praise as to cavil about. Eva Salvetti, who arrives in the prologue to narrate what will become the evening’s extended yarn, moves with grace and energy and precision, and her blend of speech and sign is poetry to watch. Linden Tailor makes quiet, gentle work of Grusha’s soldier sweetheart. And the story leaps to life whenever Scot McKenzie or Suzanne Richard takes the stage, he as the drunkard-turned-jurist Azdak and she as the good-hearted Grusha. He’s snarky, confident, enviably loose; she’s subtle, affecting, wryly funny every chance she gets. They’re sharp-etched peaks on a mountain of a play—one any company would think twice about climbing, and one Open Circle scales with no little panache.CP