Space Case

There's quite a bit wrong with Next Stage's production of The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, but what's wildly -- and exactly -- right is the group's choice of a play to open its season, as well as the casting of the protagonist.

Author Rolin Jones is now a writer for the Showtime comedy Weeds, which you should be watching if you're not. He wrote Jenny Chow a few years ago, when he was 29. It's a young man's play, a bit ragged, searching, uneven in tone and lacking a definitive ending, but it's a lovely, evocative piece nonetheless. I hesitate to even describe it, because all of the descriptions I can think of are limiting in some way, and this thing is wide open. It's quirky. Iconoclastic. Sentimental. Ironic. It mocks contemporary American culture and yearns to be part of it. The plot involves a strong element of sci-fi, but this is not a sci-fi story. And then there's all that twenty-something-in-search-of-her-identity stuff going on.

Jennifer Marcus was adopted from China as a baby, and she's never felt quite at home in her gated California community with her amiable, ex-fireman father (who sits on the roof scanning the hills for fires) and her high-powered, professional mother. She has a genius-level IQ -- and knows it -- but suffers from OCD, acute agoraphobia and her mother's too-high expectations of her. But Jennifer also has her cyberspace friends and contacts, including Terrence, the Mormon genealogist with whom she has cybersex after proving to him that God doesn't exist. She has a plan for meeting her birth mother, too. Since she obviously can't get to China -- she can't even leave the house -- she will build a robot and send it in her place. Terrence helps her find her mother, and another cyberpal, the brilliant Dr. Yakunin, gets her connected to the Department of Defense. She offers to upgrade their guided-missile system in exchange for parts.


The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow

Phoenix Theatre, 1124 Santa Fe Drive

Presented by Next Stage through September 23,

While all of this is extraordinarily inventive, swift, satiric and funny, the tone is different in the scenes between Jennifer and her parents, which are sometimes a touch sentimental and at other times wrenchingly dramatic. And Jennifer has a sweet almost-romance with the pizza delivery boy, Todd.

The best scenes in Intelligent Design have a dizzy, unreal, helium quality. When Jennifer sends her docile little cyborg, Jenny Chow, on her first flight, making her soar above the neighborhood and directing Todd to follow and eventually retrieve her, the tension vibrates between the room-bound girl and her zooming, free-floating other self. You're also aware of the miracle of our technological age: The computer may sometimes trap and isolate us, but it also provides a unique form of action and communication. In another brilliant scene, Jennifer falls apart emotionally, and her brain starts fizzling and unraveling like an out-of-control computer program. Meanwhile, her mechanical doppelgänger watches in amazement, periodically offering solace: "Are you hungry?"

At the end of the play, Jennifer is still alone in her room while Jenny is outside, terrified and on the loose but facing a world of possibilities.

Jennifer's mother, Adele, is a bit of a monster as written, though the playwright has given her some humanity. It might have been better for Mari Geasair to work more against the text; as it is, she makes the character rather shrill and uncentered. And in a perhaps too-broad performance, Jason Maxwell misses the laid-back decency underlying Todd's craziness. Additionally, Martha Yordy's original music tends to distract from, rather than enhance, the proceedings.

But Gene Kato provides madcap humor in several roles, including those of Terrence and Dr. Yakunin, and Jennifer Finley makes a dear little robot. An Nguyen was a late replacement in the role of Jennifer Marcus, and though she was a bit tentative during the first weekend of the run, she's a real find -- an appealing actress who takes a straightforward and understated approach to her role. She comes across as sincere and lost and likable, and you believe both in her dazzling intelligence and in the grief and craziness she tries so hard to fight off.


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