There aren't many plays in which an android is not only a major character, but also the title character. So if The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow isn't unique in that regard, it's certainly in limited company. But what's even odder about Rolin Jones's play at the Atlantic Theater Company is that the android is also the only major character who displays any visible humanity.
Jenny, as played by Eunice Wong, develops it only gradually. When first she appears near the end of the first act, all you can see is her hand jutting out from a shipping box and making some rudimentary gestures. But before long she's completely assembled and resembling a young woman; her voice still has an unmistakably halting, electronic ring, and her movements still look mechanical, but as she learns to perform basic tasks and simple dance steps, her body and face limber up to reveal a minute if real sense of change and growth you never expected to see.
Partially, of course, because the character is not really alive. More significantly, similar shadings and subtleties don't appear in the work of any of the show's five other performers. They run the gamut from screeching stridency (Remy Auberjonois, Linda Gehringer, Julienne Hanzelka Kim) to grating, faux understatement (Michael Cullen, Ryan King), and communicate nothing in terms of nuanced emotions.
This is most distressing in Kim's case, as she's saddled with the complex central role of Jennifer Marcus, a 22-year-old Chinese-born woman who's been raised by her American adoptive parents (Gehringer and Cullen) and suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder that also manifests itself as acute agoraphobia. Her inability to step outside her front door has crippled her ability to get a job or contribute to the family in other ways - her mother is forever hounding her to take out the garbage - so she's grown especially attached to the people she's met over the Internet.
There's real potential for depth here, but Kim stays mostly in the shallow end; she performs her complex blocking (moving along the floor in carefully prescribed, OCD-inspired patterns) but never convinces us of Jennifer's deeper psychological defects or of her capacity for intelligent, creative thought. As it's Jennifer who builds Jenny, for the purpose of helping her track down her birth mother without needing to face the threatening outside world, this missing aspect of Kim's performance throws much of the story into disarray.
Or it would if her costars were appreciably better: Cullen is unbearably overbearing for a character with milquetoast proclivities; Gehringer frequently overplays her rage at Jennifer's insouciant behavior. King, as Jennifer's pizza-delivering friend Todd, has got his "valley boy" characterization down, but can't summon many additional colors when required. And the less said the better about Auberjonois's explosively unbelievable and caricaturish portrayals of a world-traveling Mormon, an Army colonel, and (especially) a Russian former professor of Jennifer's.
It's never clear why director Jackson Gay lets the actors spiral so helplessly out of control; she grasps the general whimsical-worldly tone of that Jones establishes, and certainly allows it to come through in both her staging and Takeshi Kata's attractive modular sets. Jones, for his part, doesn't make things easy - there's a wide-ranging, picaresque quality to the show that makes it difficult to latch onto any plot point or feeling for long. A lengthy montage detailing Jenny's education and another extended scene in which Todd chases an airborne Jenny across the San Fernando Valley are as cinematic as the acridly jokey first act's gags; such moments make Jones's play seem like it was adapted from an aborted screenplay than written to live on a stage.
But it's difficult to imagine the climactic scene, in which Jenny locates Jennifer's mother (also Gehringer), playing as well on film as it does here. For the 20 minutes or so of the second act that comprise it, it's as though you're watching a fully formed, carefully crafted play with perfectly polished performers. Wong's emotionless line readings, Marcus's flailing passion at finally realizing her dream, and Gehringer's anxiety about meeting her daughter become something truly moving, and hint at possibilities Jones can't cultivate elsewhere in his script.
That this one scene so unites the company is the most bizarre aspect of an already bizarre play. I'm tempted to suggest that the performers, when faced with moments of real human drama, are able to rise to the challenge and depict real, live, feeling people, but as Wong manages it with every line in every scene she's in, I'm more apt to dismiss it as a coincidence. While it almost makes The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow worth exploration, wise audience members should wait until a bit farther along in the play's evolution.
The Intelligent Design Of Jenny Chow