Anything But Robotic

Rolin Jones’ thrilling new play captures spirit of tehno misfit youth

In Rolin Jones’ “The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow,” Jennifer (Julienne Hanzelka Kim) is a brilliant but troubled 22-year-old, intent on finding her birth mother in China. To this end, she builds a robot (Eunice Wong) that can do what she cannot—simply leave the house, as Jennifer is completely agoraphobic. This places a certain strain on her adoptive parents, especially her mother Adele (Linda Gehringer), a high-powered business executive, deeply frustrated in her passionate, yet quite simple, ambitions for her daughter.

There is more vivid imagination and sensitive human observation in Jones’ writing here than in any ten plays concurrently running on or off Broadway. He skillfully gives equal weight to his dysfunctional family plotting and the exhilarating sci-fi elements, creating true, thrilling theatrical magic in every sense of the word. Jones completely captures the zeitgeist of our world’s technologically adept but often socially blocked youth. Jennifer spends her days obsessively communicating with other misfit souls on the computer, ranting at one point to one of them, “You find missing people, I do the computer stuff. Because next time we’re in the middle of an IM and you try to break into my computer, I will send an f-bomb of kiddie porn that will bury itself in your hard drive and spam itself back to every sick fuck pedophile in the world currently under Interpol investigation, okay? I got viruses that can make you piss on yourself.”

Jackson Gay directs this pungent stuff with likeminded virtuosity. Aided by Matthew Suttor’s terrific music and Takeshi Kata’s vividly versatile set, the entire production has a feverishly paced cinematic panache that grabs the audience by the short hairs. Gay does, however, remember to slow things down effectively at moments, as in a touching scene between Jennifer and her drolly whipped father (Michael Cullen), and a certain, very telling moment in China.

As Jenny, Kim gives a whirlwind portrait of obsessive-compulsive disorder, constantly brushing her hair, walking in regimented patterns, and spraying Lysol. It’s not an easy character—abrasive and unlikable would only begin to describe her—but Kim’s formidable intelligence, breathtaking energy, and commitment result in her making Jenny a true heroine, someone to both root for and bemoan. As her mother, Gehringer is equally intense—heartbreaking at moments—as when she says, “I live in the real world, Jennifer. I’m real. And in the real world, women get screwed out there and if you’re not prepared they will squash you. So blame me, lash out at me for your condition, but don’t… [waste away].”

The dialogue in their furious interactions has a fraught, familial ring of truth about it, and Gehringer brings a power that is as fresh as it is genuine. Remy Auberjonois is a sheer wonder in a bewildering array of characters, ranging from a geeky Mormon Jenny seduces online for his savvy about China and family trees, to the Army colonel who hires her to make missiles in exchange for robot parts, to a mad but essential professor. The actor humorously etches each of these characters with the vividness of a Goya sketch. Eunice Wong is perfectly cast as the robotic Jenny Chow, wringing humor and a haunting poignancy from the material. Ryan King does well as slacker-ish Todd, a bud of Jennifer’s, who says admiringly of her robotic technology, “Dude, one time it took me a month to make a bong.”

Do yourself a favor—see it. “Doubt” isn’t the only show in town that offers something to think and talk about.