We have playwright Rolin Jones and the Yale School of Drama to thank for solving this post-millennium conundrum so early in the century: How do you dramatize a story about an obsessive-compulsive, agoraphobic young girl who experiences her entire life in front of a computer screen? Jones, a second-year student in Yale's M.F.A. playwriting program, has done it admirably with his backward-told tale of Jenny Marcus (Melody Butiu) and her robotic alter ego, Jenny Chow (April Hong).
A few details in Jenny Chow defy logic, but isn't that what any good comedy does? In the world of the play all hang together, as Jenny M. confronts serious and debilitating mental and chemical conditions with creativity and joie de vivre. Through a Mormon missionary (one of several fully realized and hilarious stylings by JD Cullum) encountered in a chat room, Jenny M., who was adopted from China, gets a copy of her original birth certificate. As her debilitating maladies prevent her from going to China, she enters a series of relationships over the Web that allows her to swap parts from the Department of Defense in exchange for refitting outmoded ordnance. Her creation, Jenny Chow, is a robot that exceeds any previous innovations: Not only can she think for herself, she can fly. After she accomplishes her mission, though, Jenny M. takes out her feelings on the hapless robot and banishes her, only to have a change of heart and thus, at the start of the play, begin her search.
Butiu brings verve to Jenny M. She has a particularly stunning moment when she experiences an obsessive-compulsive meltdown. Hong is conversely graceful and acrobatic. Daniel Blinkoff inhabits Jenny M.'s ex-boyfriend, Todd, a clueless surfer-type who brings howls of recognition from the Orange County crowd. William Francis McGuire and Linda Gehringer fill out their polar-opposite roles as Jenny's adoptive parents. But the star turn comes from Cullum in a series of outrageously comic characterizations: a hapless Mormon missionary, a Georgia cracker defense employee, a blustering Army colonel, and an eccentric Russian scientist. Some of their particularly topical comedic lines were met with polite silence by the audience on the night reviewed, however.
Much of the credit for this excellent production must go to director David Chambers, who keeps the dialogue moving and the action racing along at top speed. The long descriptive passages typed into an imaginary computer might befuddle a lesser director, but Chambers punctuates the text with Butiu's hops, marathon pacing, and other quirks. He makes the best use of designer Christopher Barreca's undulating set—which in turn is aided by SCR's superb hydraulic system. Sounds, especially for the computer, add more scenery. Lighting by Chris Parry is excellent with one caveat: the shooting star that ends the play looks more like a fizzled firecracker.
"The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow," presented by and at South Coast Repertory at the Julianne Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tues.-Fri. 7:45 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 2 p.m. & 7:45 p.m. May 2-18. $27-54. (714) 708-5555.