Rolin Jones’ “The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow,” making its world premiere at South Coast Repertory, has a plot that rings of high-concept: Adopted, agoraphobic 22-year-old, emotionally trapped at home and yearning to meet her birth mother in China, builds a robot version of herself and sends it overseas for a long-awaited reunion with Mom. Jones’ fusing of family conflict, sci-fi and mental illness is frequently clever, but the story suffers from an abrasive and unconvincing heroine.
“I’m a weirdo,” proclaims Jennifer (Melody Butiu), brilliant daughter of hard-driving businesswoman Adele (Linda Gehringer) and passive ex-firefighter Mr. Marcus (William Francis McGuire). Enslaved by the Internet, she communicates with a series of characters portrayed by JD Cullum — Terrence, a sexually repressed Mormon; Col. Hubbard, who helps her gather parts for her robot; and former high school professor Dr. Yakunin.
Jennifer’s pushiness, profanity and Valley girl speech patterns, which war against the script’s insistence on her genius, might have worked if handled less harshly, but interactions with her online pals start at piercing pitch and rarely modulate. Hostile exchanges with angry, disappointed Adele also fail, because they pound away on one level. Nowhere do we discover the deep depression or desire to retreat and hide that accompanies obsessive-compulsive disorder and agoraphobia. Nor is Jennifer taking constructive steps to overcome her difficulties.
Melody Butiu slows down and allows her natural charm to surface in scenes with robot Jenny Chow (April Hong). Hong’s thoughtful interpretation softens Butiu and functions well in its own right. Hong’s robotic motions and dialogue have just the right stylization and invite more emotional response than do Butiu’s tormented tirades.
Director David Chambers does an outstanding job with delivery man Todd, far superior to presentation of his heroine. Daniel Blinkoff’s portrayal floods the stage with sunshine. Wearing baggy chinos and a backward baseball cap, he offers a gawky grace and exceptional comic timing. Blinkoff beautifully demonstrates that love can be powerful and deep, even when intellect is limited.
As Jennifer’s well-meaning father, William Francis McGuire is understated and honest, despite his superficial role. Cullum is appealing as the religious, sexually inept Terrence. Gehringer gets to show her talent in a startling scene when she shoves Jennifer out the door to face a threatening world, and for one moment “Jenny Chow” exposes us to the kind of paralyzing terror experienced by prisoners of phobic illness.
Christopher Barreca’s imaginative minimalist set is too open, and Jennifer strides through it so freely that no sense of entrapment, cocooning or claustrophobia is suggested. Chris Parry’s lighting of Jennifer through the translucent computer table is striking, but his overall approach lacks shading and mood to suggest mental turmoil.
Sound designer David Budries reinforces the robot’s impact when she flies or falls into a pool after battery failure, and his music is tactfully effective.