You don’t have to be an ace computer hacker, or even own an iPad, to appreciate The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow. The play’s appeal is universal. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the production features a cast that doesn’t quit, special effects that both amaze and endear, and a sensibility so attractive that you wonder if director Sean Gray read your mind before deciding on the details.
Jenny Chow feels like a one-woman show with a six-member cast. Supremely talented actress Jennifer Jung never leaves the stage. Everything revolves around her character, also named Jennifer, and her isolated existence as an adopted Chinese teenage agoraphobe with a genius IQ who connects with the outside world through her computer.
Jennifer’s seclusion is further compounded by her “germaphobia,” which prohibits any physical contact with her parents and even precludes a hug from a friend who moves away. From the safety of her San Fernando Valley bedroom, Jennifer has developed social skills that are distinctly rough around the edges. And her relationship with her mother Adele (Susan E. Taylor), is decidedly challenged. But no more so than many mother-daughter relationships.
Adele doesn’t accept her daughter’s emotional limitations and refuses to enable her isolation. But in the end, does she have any choice? As a counterweight, Jennifer’s likable and compassionate father (Jaimz Woolvett) provides the play’s emotional center, at first appearing weak but gradually gaining our esteem as we discover his admirable patience and wisdom.
All the while, Jennifer has a secret plan. She’s decided she wants to locate and meet her Chinese biological mother. Unable to leave the family home, she determines to build a robot surrogate that will fly to China (under its own power, not by airplane) and meet the woman.
At once supremely down-to-earth in its Southern California reality, the play takes a distinct allegorical turn with the introduction of Jenny Chow, an android of remarkable humanity and emotional depth. Portrayed with infectious charm and innocence by Sayaka Miyatani, the robotic Jenny embarks on her mission with a deep sense of loyalty and purpose. Here Taylor doubles up in the additional role of bio mom, Mrs. Zhang, in a heartbreaking scene that takes place in China. Jennifer is able to see the woman through Jenny’s eyes. But for Jennifer the “successful” mission has unexpected results.
What makes this complex play so intriguing is its mix of entertaining attributes. Jennifer must find her bio mom, so she solicits the help of a “computer friend” named Terrence (Andrew Pedroza), a nerdy young Mormon man on his religious mission in China. What began as computer sex in return for Terrence’s efforts on behalf of Jennifer’s mom-search evolves into the young man appreciatively putting an end to the “friendship” after finding the Chinese woman.
Pedroza excels at the role, as well as that of Jennifer’s friend Todd, a pizza-delivery boy with an amiable and engaging personality that almost any teenage girl’s parents would adore.
Jennifer also needs the parts to build Jenny. Enter a variety of characters including a professor, an Air Force colonel, and a Raytheon intermediary, all played with amazing comedic facility by Playhouse veteran actor Skip Blas.
The play’s dialogue attempts realism and succeeds with flying colors, but not without quite a bit of “colorful” language. But for once it isn’t gratuitous.
As for the robot, you have to experience Jenny Chow to believe her. Costume designer Martina Lee Jeans has worked unbelievable magic, as has special-effects designer Andrew Vonderschmitt.
The choreographed segments in which Jennifer’s motions match Jenny’s are a sight to behold. And director Gray has brought it all together in one harmonious feat of theatrical success.
The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow is the perfect play. It is both entertaining and engrossing. With an ample length of almost two and a half hours, it never drags. Each brilliant line of playwright Rolin Jones’s believable dialogue is distilled down to its necessary essence. There is no fluff.
Hats off and thumbs up to the production team at The Long Beach Playhouse for staging one of the smartest, funniest, most interesting and thought-provoking plays in recent memory, and for doing it up first class. Bravo.
The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow continues on the Long Beach Playhouse Mainstage through June 16. General admission tickets are $24, $21 for seniors. Student tickets are $14 with valid student ID. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, with Sunday matinees at 2pm. The Long Beach Playhouse is located at 5021 E. Anaheim St. Call (562) 494-1014 for reservations and information. Tickets are also available online at lbplayhouse.org .