The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow provides proof that a talented cast can sometimes triumph over mediocre material. The good folks at Actors Theatre have pulled out all the stops in an attempt to patch the elephant-size holes in Rolin Jones' high-concept comedy about a troubled girl who's trying to connect with the world. Director Matthew Wiener has done a colossal job of fusing the script's absurd fantasy elements with its more levelheaded passages with the help of a cast made up of some of our best local actors and headed by a charming thespian who's reprising her lead from the play's première production.
Somehow, it's almost enough. Jones, a product of the playwriting program at the Yale School of Drama, has crafted a script that takes a sharp left turn too late into the first act, then spends most of Act Two playing catch-up to its own sudden weirdness. There are plenty of laughs along the way, and several dark passages informed by worthy messages about the ways in which we use technology to keep the world at bay. But what starts out as a meditative, playful study of contemporary culture becomes a high-camp, absurdist comedy in a switch that happens too late, throwing its audience off kilter.
Jones' story goes like this: Jennifer Marcus is a Chinese adoptee, a teenaged agoraphobic with obsessive-compulsive disorder who spends all her time online, chatting with scientists, horny Mormons, and a bounty hunter. Her adoptive mother, an end-of-her-tether workaholic, is pissed off that Jennifer has lately been searching for her biological mother, who gave her up to a Chinese orphanage. Because Jennifer is a genius who's unable to leave the house, she builds a flying robot that she names Jenny Chow, and sends the robot off to find her real mother.
Up until the robot appears, Jones' story is a sly, entertaining dramedy about our increasingly unreal relationship with the real world. But once reality itself is abandoned in favor of the goofy shtick and deliberately cheesy "special effects" that dominate Act Two, the story's wider themes collapse into a pile of camp references that seem to belong to a less thoughtful play. Then the author, unable to come up with a suitable ending, leaves us wondering about the fate of Jennifer, her robot, and her unresolved relationship with her adoptive parents.
That Jenny Chow remains bright and engaging is due almost entirely to its superb cast and smart, breakneck direction. Cathy Dresbach's strong performance as Jennifer's perpetually enraged mother provides nice contrast to Gerald Burgess' inane, laid-back father, and Gene Ganssle hustles up a stage full of vivid oddballs a doofy Mormon genealogist, a mad scientist, a Pentagon procurement officer with his usual high comic style.
As Jennifer Marcus, Melody Butiu is a marvel. Through sheer talent, she persuades us that a troubled Gen-Z genius who's riddled with obsessive traits and tics is also a charismatic charmer. Butiu isn't tripped up by reams of improbable narration (she speaks much of the story to an unseen computer pal with whom she's IM-ing via a transcription headset) and remains our champion even while uttering preposterous teenaged boasts ("Like, I got a job re-engineering obsolete missile components after I lost my job at the mall!" and "Okay, one of the first things you have to get used to is I'm better than you."). She's simply lovely here, and her performance is a clear, true note in an otherwise disappointing story that seems only half there.
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