From the safety of her pink bedroom nest, the leading character in Rolin Jones’ fantastical and funny play “The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow” leads an extraordinary life. Though she’s an agoraphobic with obsessive-compulsive disorder, 22-year-old Jennifer Marcus can do almost anything — except go through the front door of her San Fernando Valley gated-community home. But thanks to her genius skills and an Ethernet cable, she manages to extend her reach by building a robot, dubbed Jenny Chow, and rocketing her off to China in search of Jennifer’s birth mother.
Jones’ work, receiving its East Coast bow at scribe’s playwriting alma mater, is more than a flight of fancy. Beneath its hyper energy and comic hysteria, it’s also a heart-breaking study of a wounded and abandoned bird who finds refuge, strength and empowerment through her cyber-connections with the outside world.
These vital and vivid links that tap into Jennifer’s private universe include a devoted and naughty Mormon, a mad colonel, a madder professor, a Raytheon bean-counter and a mysterious bounty hunter. Independently, they rally on Jennifer’s behalf to help her build an android that accomplishes what she is unable to do: fly away from the adoptive home that includes her well-meaning, stay-at-home father and workaholic mother.
But once in China, Jennifer — via robot Jenny — finds history repeating itself with devastating results. All around, doors are slammed, windows are locked and safety and sanity are just one more brushstroke away.
Subtitled “an instant message with excitable music,” Jones’ play captures the speed, strain and surreality of a serious mental illness. By focusing on a seemingly indestructible and all-knowing character obsessed with control and order, he reveals a lost child in a techno-world who is cracking up under the parental pressure of being “the perfect girl.”
Seema Sueko’s Jennifer is at first strident as the whiz kid with Valley Girl inflections, but as the play goes on, she shows her character’s pathos as well as her pathology. Keiko Yamamoto makes the robot Jenny Chow a fascinating wonder, a Pinocchio for the Internet age.
Janet Zarish brings compassion and depth to Jennifer’s seemingly harsh mother, who painfully insists her daughter live in the real world. Thesp also is poignant as Jennifer’s shamed Asian mother. Ken Marks makes Jennifer’s father a lovable lug.
Carson Elrod and Remy Auberjonois give extraordinary comic perfs, the former as Jennifer’s sweet slacker friend and the latter as a quartet of wonderfully extreme characters who are Jennifer’s outside connections.
Set designer Lee Savage creates a perched and protective nest of a bedroom where Jennifer finds a safe haven from her self-imposed terrors. Matthew Suttor creates original music that beautifully mirrors the manic as well as the tender.
Under Jackson Gay’s speedy yet sensitive direction, Yale Rep gives the work a topnotch production that should open doors for a talented new playwright.