Meet Jennifer Marcus. She is 22 years old and lives in Calabasas, Calif. Her favorite color is sunset red, because it makes her happy, and when she was young, her mother loved her so much that she gave her away.
This, in a nutshell, is Jennifer’s life story, which she programs her self-created flying pet robot to parrot back to her birth mother in China. Yes, that’s right, her robot.
What the mechanical messenger leaves out of its spiel is that Jennifer Marcus (Seema Sueko), the lead character in playwright Rolin Jones DRA ’04’s and director Jackson Gay DRA ’02’s performance preview of “The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow: An Instant Message With Excitable Music,” also has a severe case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder which has mutated into agoraphobia. Sueko spends all of her time online, furiously IMing everyone from Mormons in Shanghai to the Department of Defense, and has used her remarkable genius to create a world so complex, secure and odd within her room that even if she could bring herself to leave the house, she wouldn’t need to.
This is the world into which you will immediately be thrust if you choose to see the Yale Repertory Theatre’s latest production, so be prepared. The show is frenetic from the start, opening with Jennifer furiously typing away at her computer, engaged in an online conversation that is somewhere between the effusive rant of an overly-excited teenaged girl and the overbearing lecture of a slightly crazed engineering professor. We soon learn that Jennifer is a genius who was adopted from China when she was young, but though she lives a relatively charmed life, she is convinced that she is a disappointment to her mother and that her father has no expectations for her.
When she receives her birth certificate in the mail one day, a gift from her Mormon friend with whom she has frequent cybersex in exchange for his help in finding her genealogical origins, she decides that she will go to China to finally reunite with her biological mother. The caveat? Jennifer cannot bring herself to leave the house. Whereas a normal person might consider therapy to overcome this problem, Jennifer decides to pool her resources, contact a robotics-professor friend, and build a robot that will travel to China and interact with Jennifer’s mother as an extension of Jennifer herself. What ensues is Jennifer’s attempt to find herself without ever leaving the safety bubble of her room.
“Jenny Chow” is an unusual twist on the typical finding-who-you-truly-are story, and it aims to please. Like the erratic behaviors of the title character, the play zips through the story at top speed, throwing in everything from a strange chronological creation-of-the-beast montage to a few quips about New Haven (“There’s nothing but Thai food in this town!”).
But its quirky plot, combined with its bubblegum-pink sets and stereotyped characters, leaves little room for the audience to feel a real connection and sense of empathy for the characters.
Sueko frequently talks at us in an exhaustive, ranting narration that feels as sterile as the Instant Message conversations she conducts with the other characters. We are less inclined to sympathize with her desire to find her true mother than to pity her because she’s just so weird. It is not until late in the second act that Sueko finally portrays in Jennifer a true frustration and devastation to which we can relate.
Sueko is supported by an equally eccentric cast of characters, some with more substance than others. Jennifer’s sole friend, stoner Todd, is played by Carson Elrod with a dopey charm and a swaggery tone a la John Corbett. Ken Marks DRA ’84 plays Jennifer’s loveable father with a wistful tenderness and an endearing tendency to use bodacious surfer-dude vernacular. And Jennifer’s cyborg creation, the robot Jenny Chow, is played quite convincingly by Keiko Yamamoto DRA ’04.
The most notable performances by far, however, are given by Remy Auberjonois DRA ’01 and Janet Zarish. Auberjonois plays a number of animated roles, from the aforementioned Mormon to the frustrated Russian robotics professor Dr. Yakunin to Colonel Hubbard of the Department of Defense, portraying each character with distinction and comedic skill. Zarish plays Jennifer’s overworked mother with a businesslike severity appropriate to her character, but she manages to show a heartbreaking and desperate frustration with her daughter’s uselessness that percolates up and bubbles over during her scenes with Jennifer.
When the lights finally fade on the world of Jennifer Marcus, it is difficult to sift out the meaning buried in all the play’s oddities. But perhaps we need to adopt a bit of Jennifer’s wonder and throw our practicality to the wind to fully enjoy “Jenny Chow.”
If we can just let go a little, we may come to find, as Colonel Hubbard of the Department of Defense tells Jennifer, that her “quirkiness suits us just fine.”